06/08/2011 05:29 pm ET | Updated Aug 08, 2011

What It Takes to Preserve Environmental Justice in California

For those of us who believe that the health of people and the planet should come before profits, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is the cornerstone of our state's environmental policy. CEQA states that business and government must protect the environment and communities when developing land. This law gives every Californian a way to defend their families and their communities from the worst environmental impacts of development. CEQA makes sure that everyone can have their day in court -- not just the big corporations and developers. Over the years, ordinary people have invoked CEQA thousands of times to protect their neighborhoods from pollution and displacement -- and quite often, have won better outcomes for their communities.

As an Oakland native, I have seen firsthand the impact that polluters have on neighborhoods, particularly in low-income communities and communities of color. Asthma, cancer and lung disease plague our communities. The high concentrations of toxins in our neighborhoods are the result of waste treatment plants, trucking facilities, oil refineries and other installations that would never be tolerated in wealthier communities.

Critics of CEQA claim it is inconvenient and expensive to consider the economic and health impacts on residents. It is not surprising that these same critics have falsely targeted CEQA as the source of California's current economic misery. It's ironic that the legislation that Governor Ronald Reagan signed into law and has served as a national model, is under attack in the state where it was started -- and by the very people claiming the Gipper as their inspiration. Caught up in California's tortuous budget battle, CEQA has become the target of slash and burn "reformers" who assert limiting public participation under the law will improve California's economy and miraculously create more jobs.

They could not be more wrong.

Job growth is not a byproduct of robbing Californians of their rights. The Ella Baker Center understands it is not only possible but also necessary to fight poverty and pollution at the same time. That's why we launched the Oakland Green Jobs Corps to help rebuild California's economy so that it restores the planet and creates opportunity and prosperity for all. We regularly partner with the companies of the future, businesses that have figured out that sustainability is for good bottom line. Our work champions the creation of good, green jobs -- jobs that are healthy for the planet, pay a livable wage, and offer opportunities for a better life.

Those who want to gut CEQA fail to understand that there is no conflict between sustainable development and economic progress. However, there has been an endless and needlessly expensive conflict between developers of the pollution-based economy and those of us who want clean air and water, born most heavily by residents of our communities.

Thanks to CEQA, California has led the way in empowering people to solve these problems. The list of improvements is long and includes increasing air and water quality, banning toxic chemicals and reductions in hazardous materials, to name just a few. Long-term job growth is rooted in a healthy economy, and healthy economies are rooted in healthy communities.

Limiting public participation under the law, as "reformers" have proposed as part of the state budget negotiations, will do nothing to improve California's economy. But it will do permanent harm to our environment, trapping local land use decisions in state capitol gridlock, permitting lobbyists to thwart the will of communities, and creating a two-tier system of justice -- one for those who can buy it, and another for the rest of us.

Forty years ago, California's leaders were wise enough to protect the rights of all residents under CEQA. Preserving our environmental equity means that we do no less today. California's economy will be strongest when it can both restore the planet and create opportunity and prosperity for all.