09/29/2010 10:44 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Make a Mess, Clean It Up

If a company makes a mess, it should be responsible for cleaning it up. And if that mess has long-term impacts on the economy, the environment and public health, then the company has a responsibility to invest in the recovery effort. It's the right -- and fair -- thing to do.

BP has made a big mess -- pollution that has negatively impacted tens of thousands of people for years to come. It's only fair that they make a long-term investment to help fix this problem.
It may sound like we're talking about the Gulf oil spill, but we're actually talking about our own backyard: BP's Carson Refinery located in densely populated southern Los Angeles. And while BP's offshore oil spill is certainly a more devastating catastrophe, the chemicals released from its Carson smokestacks also pose a tremendously negative risk for community health.

But just as in the Gulf, there may be an opportunity for remedy: BP is one of the big polluters that will likely be affected by the implementation of AB 32 -- California's climate change law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). And while GHGs are the central target of this law, the legislation is also an opportunity to reduce other pollutant emissions and thus save our state's economy billions of dollars annually in health costs.

This opportunity arises because the nuts-and-bolts of AB 32 implementation are still being worked out. Policymakers are developing a market-based strategy, such as cap-and-trade or a carbon fee, to encourage industrial polluters to decrease GHGs. One of the most significant issues being debated is how the revenues generated though this system should be spent.

As the Legislature weighs its options, our federal government's response to the Gulf oil spill provides a good starting point for how to move forward. Following the spill, the government pressured BP to set up a fund to invest in helping the worst-hit areas recover from the disaster. Because the communities along the Gulf coast are the ones facing the greatest health and economic impacts, they are prioritized though the fund.

This principle -- that revenues generated by encouraging emissions reductions should be invested in the people and businesses facing the greatest risk from that pollution -- is the concept behind the community benefits fund proposed by AB 1405. This bill was just passed by California's Legislature and if signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger, it would invest a portion of the revenues from AB 32 in communities most affected by major polluters.

Air pollution, after all, is not dispersed equally. Many of the facilities that will pay into the AB 32 fund are clustered around communities in regions such as southern Los Angeles, the zone around the Carquinez Strait in the San Francisco Bay Area and Bakersfield. In general, these areas bear a disproportionate burden of the health and economic impacts from air pollution -- with their problems including greater rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease and asthma. They also happen to be places with large communities of color and low-income neighborhoods.

Incorporating a community benefits fund into the implementation of AB 32 could help close this disparity in two ways. First, part of this fund would be focused on reducing the local impacts of greenhouse gas co-pollutants by investing in retro-fitting equipment, clean energy technologies, and "greening" efforts -- all of which could create new employment opportunities for local residents.

Second, it would more directly reduce the health risks in these communities by investing in public transportation and cooling centers (a precious resource in areas like Los Angeles where African-Americans are more than twice as likely as Whites to die from heat waves due to lack of air conditioning). The fund could also be used to protect schools, childcare centers, playgrounds and health care facilities where exposure to air pollution and extreme weather events may be especially detrimental.

We must ensure that AB 32 implementation protects those who are suffering most from pollution and that revenues from AB 32 are used to close the climate gap.

That's why we support AB 1405. The creation of a community benefits fund to invest in California communities most affected by toxic air pollution, paid for by those causing the most pollution, is the right -- and fair -- thing to do.