In February of 2018, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra created the Bureau of Environmental Justice within the Environment Section at the California Department of Justice. The mission of this agency within an agency is “to protect people and communities that endure a disproportionate share of environmental pollution and public health hazards. This will be accomplished through oversight, investigation, and enforcement of the law,” the DOJ website states.
“With enforcement of environmental crimes declining dramatically at the federal level, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced the creation of a Bureau of Environmental Justice that will work to protect people who live in polluted communities through oversight, investigation, and enforcement of the law,” ThinkProgress reported in 2018. “The environmental justice bureau’s initial staffing will be composed of a supervising deputy attorney general and three deputy attorneys general.”
“To all who advocate for environmental justice, the California Department of Justice will work with you and fight for a clean, safe and healthy environment,” Becerra said.
AB 1628 by Assemblyman Robert Rivas (D-Hollister), appears to provide a hushed process to codify a bureau already created by the Attorney General where it appears their mission is to sue the federal government. But the AG already has more than 50 lawsuits against the Trump Administration, with nearly half of those lawsuits focusing on environmental issues, and regulatory rollbacks the Trump administration has made at the federal level.
The bill requires the director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research to consult with the Attorney General and the Bureau when coordinating environmental justice programs.
According to Assemblyman Rivas, “Low-income people and people of color endure a disproportionate share of environmental pollution and public health hazards where they live, work, and go to school. These frontline communities often lack resources and opportunities to combat environmental harms and are denied a voice in key decisions that impact their health. AB 1628 supports the Attorney General’s Bureau of Environmental Justice in its efforts to protect these vulnerable communities from environmental hazards and adds ‘meaningful engagement’ to the definition of environmental justice to ensure all voices are heard.”
During a hearing on AB 1628 Wednesday in the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, Rivas said his bill would authorize enforcement for the Bureau. And it was clear funding was part of the ask.
Senator Pat Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) said she had a problem “codifying an agency within an agency,” never authorized by the Legislature. “We are committing tax dollars to a new agency which should have been reviewed by the Legislature first.”
Bates made an important point. Creation of the Bureau stepped on the toes of the legislature responsible for providing guidance and oversight when creating permanent government entities. And legitimizing a new agency who measures their effectiveness through the number of times the federal government has been sued needs to be examined and scrutinized legislatively.
One of the goals of the Bureau of Environmental Justice is to “challenge the federal government’s actions that repeal or reduce public health and environmental protection.”
“The Attorney General is already our lawyer,” Sen. Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) said to Rivas. Wieckowski seemed to question the need for the bill, as well as the DOJ’s new Bureau of Environmental Justice, given that the Attorney General is already required to uphold all California law.
SB 115 by Solis in 1999 established the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) as the lead agency in state government for environmental justice programs. SB 115 requires the Director of OPR to consult with the Secretaries of the California Environmental Protection Agency, the Resources Agency, the Trade and Commerce Agency, the Business, Transportation, and Housing Agency, any other appropriate state agencies, and all other interested members of the public and private sectors in this state.
AB 1628 also “revises” the definition of “environmental justice” to include “the meaningful engagement of people of all races, cultures, and incomes.”
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