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Environmental Justice for All: Struggle in the Baldwin Hills and South Central Los Angeles

By Robert García and Ramya Sivasubramanian

The Baldwin Hills and South Central Los Angeles constitute the historic heart of African American Los Angeles.Baldwin Hills

The more affluent Baldwin Hills area has traditionally been an epicenter of excellence for African American life and culture in the United States, along with Sugar Hill in Harlem and, most recently, the White House. These communities, disproportionately populated by African Americans (and, increasingly, by Latinos and other people of color), have long strived for equal access to public resources such as parks and recreation. They have also struggled to be free of environmental degradation, such as sewage overflows and urban oil fields.

Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, one of the first environmental organizations in the nation, has been a central part of the struggle in Baldwin Hills and South Central Los Angeles. The City Project, a policy and legal advocacy nonprofit organization, has represented Concerned Citizens in this environmental justice work. Our mission at City Project is equal justice, democracy, and livability for all—a mission reflected in our work with Concerned Citizens. Together with other diverse allies, we are making a dream come true: Baldwin Hills Park, the largest urban park designed in the United States in over a century. We have also fought to regulate the adjoining Baldwin Hills oil fields to protect human health and the environment better. This work has defined the standard for protecting human health and the environment in urban oil fields, including those in communities of color and low-income. We have helped fix the sewer system citywide to eliminate noxious odors and create park and clean water projects. We are accomplishing this through a $2 billion settlement agreement in what the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has called one of the largest sewage cases in U.S. history, and the first time the Clean Water Act has been used to clean up sewer odors.

Although Baldwin Hills may be comparatively well-off financially, it is plagued by the inequality and environmental injustice common to communities of color and to South Central and other low-income communities, unlike wealthy non-Hispanic white communities. That is why we continue the struggle with Concerned Citizens. Mark Williams, one of Concerned Citizens’ founding members and current board member, “Concerned Citizens is about environmental justice, places to play in parks and schools, affordable housing, economic development and local jobs, the community taking part in making decisions that affect our lives….The environment is not just about the absence of contamination.

People and Place

Soccer at Baldwin Hills ParkBaldwin Hills rest at the environmentally and demographically diverse center of Los Angeles. Baldwin Hills Park lies at the intersection of the African American, Latino, and non-Hispanic white communities of Los Angeles. People of color make up 79.6 percent of Baldwin Hills’ population, compared to 72.5 percent in the county as a whole. Fully 44.2 percent of the residents are African American, compared to 8.4 percent in the county. South Central is over 34.8 percent African American, and 30.2 percent of the residents live in poverty—well above the county average of 18.3 percent.

The concentration of African American homes and businesses, lack of parks and recreation, and environmental degradation in these neighborhoods is not an accident of unplanned growth or the result of a free-market distribution of land based on personal utilities—they are a direct result of a continuing pattern of discriminatory land-use planning, restrictive housing covenants, federal mortgage subsidies limited to racially homogeneous neighborhoods, and discriminatory New Deal economic policies. People of color continue to suffer from the double whammy of disproportionately being deprived of environmental benefits, including parks, while bearing environmental burdens, including environmental degradation.

Los Angeles pioneered the use of racially restrictive housing covenants in the twentieth century; this limited access by African Americans and other people of color to quality housing, jobs, schools, playgrounds, parks, beaches, restaurants, transportation, and other public resources. African Americans became concentrated in South Central during the first half of the twentieth century. In the 1960s social and legal segregation began to fall and the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed housing discrimination. Middle-class and upper-class African Americans moved westward from South Central into the formerly white enclave of Baldwin Hills. White flight from advancing African Americans opened up opportunities to rent or buy housing, and the area became the geographical focus of affluent African American Los Angeles.

A Never-Ending Struggle

Williams started playing soccer in the Baldwin Hills when he was a law student at the University of California, Los Angeles: “Even though the Baldwin Hills are pretty far from my community at Vernon and Central Avenue, there were so few parks and school fields that we had to drive several miles just to play in the Baldwin Hills. There was no other place to play in parks or schools.”

Los Angeles is park-poor. Children of color and low-income children disproportionately lack parks and schools with five or more acres of playing fields. These children also lack access to cars or decent transit to reach playing fields. They suffer first and worst from diseases such as obesity and diabetes and are the most at risk of gangs, crime, drugs, and violence. The greater Baldwin Hills area is of the most park-poor in California, with barely one acre of parkland per 1,000 people. Childhood obesity rates are among the highest in the region. Within a five-mile radius, there is only one picnic table for every 10,000 people, one playground for 23,000 children, one soccer field for 34,000 people, and one basketball court for 30,000 people.

The Baldwin Hills Park is the greatest public works project in the history of a community that has long suffered from environmental degradation and discrimination. Ironically, the oil fields dating back to the 1920s deterred development of what is now the park and left the rolling hills in their natural state, preserving native plants and wildlife. Easily accessible to millions of people, with stunning views of the Los Angeles basin, the Pacific Ocean, and surrounding mountains, the Baldwin Hills offer a unique opportunity within a dense and diverse urban community that is park-poor to create a world-class park and natural space for all the people of California to enjoy.

The idea for the park started in early 1978. Joe Edmiston, head of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, was flying over the area with Chris Delaport, head of President Jimmy Carter’s parks initiative, and with the legendary Los Angeles county supervisor Kenneth Hahn. As Edmiston recounts, “[i]n a memorable exchange, over the helicopter noise as Delaport was viewing both areas, Supervisor Hahn tried to broker a deal with me and present it to Delaport. ‘You get your park, and I get my park. Deal?’ This was vintage Hahn as a locally based political broker, working within the Carter Administration’s quite sophisticated attempt to create protected areas at a level that was less than federally owned and with state and local participation.”

“All of this is, of course, superimposed upon the ‘reality’ of the Baldwin Hills oil extraction operation,” according to Edmiston, and, “given the price of oil projected into the future, the primary issue, and determining feature of the Baldwin Hills Park, is oil versus park. The oil drillers have rights going back to the 1920s, and they are not about to be displaced. Going forward with a real park under these circumstances has got to be the most difficult urban park challenge in America.”

The struggle for the Baldwin Hills Park never ends. In 2001 the state proposed putting an emergency power plant in the middle of the park. The state proposed this at the height of the claimed energy crisis without conducting any environmental review. In 2003 Los Angeles proposed siting a garbage dump—euphemistically called a “solid waste transfer station”—in the park. In 2005 Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “good government” commission proposed eliminating the Baldwin Hills Conservancy and making the park a local park to save money—at the same time that the state proposed a new state-funded Sierra Nevada Conservancy to serve disproportionately white and wealthy rural areas. Concerned Citizens and City Project, worked with diverse allies to save the park and stop the power plant, garbage dump, and budget cuts.

What is the value of the Baldwin Hills Park to the community? According to Williams,

[t]he Baldwin Hills Park is a place to play, to have fun. It has the potential to be Central Park of Los Angeles, the greatest urban park west of the Mississippi. The park offers open space, hiking trails, people walk there, they recreate there, they play soccer and baseball. The park and trees help clean the air in smoggy L.A. The park also raises property values for working and middle-class families who live in the area. This is a priceless, invaluable place. The park serves the community well beyond Baldwin Hills and South Central. It is a regional and state park, not a neighborhood park.

The struggle for parks, green space, and physical activity is not limited to the Baldwin Hills Park, according to Williams:

We were also fighting with The City Project to create urban parks, to build new schools, to adopt joint use of schools, pools, and parks, and to pass statewide park bonds and local school construction bonds at the ballot. We helped create Los Angeles State Historic Park downtown and stop proposed warehouses there. We worked with Raul Macias and Anahuak Youth Soccer Association to create Rio de Los Angeles State Park.

Baldwin Hills’ Standard

The biggest community struggle began when Plains Exploration and Production, an oil company, proposed to expand the number of new oil wells in the oil field adjoining the Baldwin Hills Park. In 2006 uncontrolled emissions of noxious gas from the oil field next to the park caused the evacuation of dozens of people and affected more than five hundred homes in adjacent neighborhoods.

Baldwin Hills community actionCommunity action prompted a temporary moratorium on new well drilling, while the county conducted its environmental review. After months of hearings, drafts, and public comments, the county adopted a final environmental impact report and a “community standards district”—the county’s technical name for zoning regulations. Community advocates (including Concerned Citizens and City Project), united through the Greater Baldwin Hills Alliance, felt that the report and regulations did not adequately protect human health and the environment.

Concerned Citizens (represented by City Project), Culver City, Community Health Councils, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Citizens Coalition for a Safe Community, and private attorneys filed, in November 2008, four related suits against the County of Los Angeles and Plains Exploration and Production Company to protect people, homes, and parklands (Petition for Writ of Mandate, Community Health Councils Incorporated v. County of Los Angeles, No. BS 118018 (L.A. Super. Ct. Nov. 25, 2008); Petition for Writ of Mandate, Culver City v. County of Los Angeles, No. BS 118023 (L.A. Super. Ct. Nov. 25, 2008); Petition for Writ of Mandate, Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles v. County of Los Angeles, No. BS 118039 (L.A. Super. Ct. Nov. 26, 2008); Petition for Writ of Mandate, Citizens Coalition for a Safe Community v. County of Los Angeles, No. BS 118056 (L.A., Cal., Super. Ct. Dec. 1, 2008)). The petitioners sought to enforce the California Environmental Quality Act and environmental justice protections under civil rights laws.

Cases challenging environmental impact reports under state law normally reach trial within a few months and are based on the administrative record, with no discovery or depositions. In this case the oil company had the deep pockets to drag the case out for almost three years. “This is the most protracted and expensive litigation in the history of Culver City,” Mayor Andrew Weismann testified before the California Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials on May 14, 2010.

The community did not back down. After more than two years of litigation and mediation, the parties reached a historic agreement in July 2011 (Stipulation to Stay Action and Order, Community Health Councils Incorporated v. County of Los Angeles, No. BS 118018 (Consolidated with BS 118023, BS 118039, & BS 118056) (L.A., Cal., Super. Ct. July 15, 2011)). The settlement establishes limits on the numbers of wells, where they can be drilled, and noise levels. The settlement sets landscaping rules, requires periodic health and environmental justice assessments under environmental and civil rights laws, increases air-quality monitoring, and requires a study of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the area. According to the county, the oil field is the most heavily regulated urban oil field in the nation. The settlement set the national standard for the regulation of urban oil fields. “We knew we had to meet the standards that came out of Baldwin Hills,” an oil company executive in Whittier, California, told the Los Angeles Times in 2012.

How does Williams feel about the protracted litigation and settlement?:

Concerned Citizens is proud to be a part of it. We are honored to have worked with The City Project, Culver City, and the other attorneys and organizations. The community was not fully informed about the oil field activity, not fully engaged in the process of establishing the oil standards through the environmental review process. The outgoing county supervisor was retiring and did not fully represent the community. The legal and organizing effort made the environmental protections better. The studies will provide hard data the community needs going forward.

$2 Billion Agreement for Clean Water Justice and Sewer Odors

Concerned Citizens, City Project, and their allies (including homeowners and EPA) are working to ensure that the Los Angeles complies with the Clean Water Act through a $2 billion settlement agreement and court order that requires the city to improve the sewer system citywide and eliminate the persistent sewer odors that plagued Baldwin Hills and South Central residents for decades. The case marks the first time that the Clean Water Act was used to address sewage odors, separate from overflows, and it highlights the need for equal access to public resources and equitable infrastructure investments to improve quality of life for all.

The original suit was filed by Santa Monica Baykeeper in 1998 (Complaint, Santa Monica Baykeeper v. City of Los Angeles, No. 98-9039-RSWL (C.D. Cal. Nov. 9, 1998)). Incredibly the city argued that there was no systemic citywide problem because overflows were concentrated in South Los Angeles and Highland Park—communities that are disproportionately of color and low income. EPA and the California Regional Water Quality Control Board filed similar suits in 2001.

Because mainstream environmentalists and government attorneys did not work with the community to remedy thirty years of sewer overflows and noxious odors, grassroots leaders took action. Concerned Citizens, Baldwin Hills Estates Homeowners’ Association, Baldwin Hills Village Garden Homes Association, United Homeowners Association, and Village Green Owners Association, represented by civil rights attorneys from City Project and English, Munger & Rice, intervened in the pending cases in 2001.

After the city admitted liability for more than 3,500 sewage spills, the consolidated cases in United States v. City of Los Angeles ended in 2004 with a ninety-page, $2 billion settlement agreement to improve the sewer system citywide, clean up sewer odors, and create park, creek, and wetland projects to improve water quality and quality of life (Settlement Agreement and Final Order, United States v. City of Los Angeles, Nos. 01-191-RSWL & 98-9039-RSWL (Consolidated) (C.D. Cal. Oct. 29, 2004)).

The environmental justice concerns did not end there, however. While the city made progress to fix the sewer system throughout the rest of the city, there was virtually no progress to eliminate odors in South Central and the Baldwin Hills five years after the settlement. In 2009 the community groups went back to court to modify the 2004 agreement (Modification to Settlement Agreement and Final Order, United States v. City of Los Angeles, Nos. 01-191-RSWL & 98-9039-RSWL (Consolidated) (C.D. Cal. Aug. 20, 2009)).

The modified 2009 settlement is working. The agreement provides for an odor advisory board with volunteer community members, an independent expert, and City Project as community liaison to work with the city to fix the odor problem. The city has opened two new air treatment facilities to vacuum air from the sewers and clean it up by using state-of-the-art technology. These new facilities draw visits from experts from around the world. Sewer odors have vastly decreased, and the city’s relationship with the community has improved. According to Opal Young, an African American community leader who serves on the Odor Advisory Board,

[t]he city’s response under the new settlement has been excellent! It couldn’t get any better. The city is listening to us. They changed their mode. With our persistence and the help of The City Project and the independent expert, they saw we were not going away. This is not the end of the story. We’re not putting a period there, we’re only putting a comma. But we will make things happen if the good things don’t keep up.

Similarly, Adel Hagekhalil, assistant director of the city’s Bureau of Sanitation, said, “The Odor Advisory Board restored trust between the community and the city. We listen to the community. They provide us real feedback. We provide them accurate information.”

Sewer overflows in Los Angeles hit a record low in 2011–2012, an 83 percent reduction from the baseline year of 2000–2001. Los Angeles’ 2011 sewer overflows were among the lowest in the nation.

The 2004 agreement also provides for multibenefit park and water projects to improve water quality and quality of life through supplemental environmental projects. These are projects to improve, protect, or reduce risks to public health or the environment in light of past problems, where money damages are not an appropriate remedy. The supplemental environmental projects renovate and create much-needed green space in communities without parks and recreation. For example, the South Los Angeles Wetlands Park transformed a nine-acre underutilized maintenance yard into a community park. The park provides valuable green space in a park-poor community, while the functional wetlands treat and clean runoff from the surrounding community before it enters the Los Angeles River and, eventually, the ocean.

The 2009 modified settlement agreement serves as a best-practice example of how grassroots community groups, civil rights attorneys, government agencies, and mainstream environmentalists can work together and have a huge impact in protecting quality of life and social justice, as well as water and air quality.

Resolution

The settlements that Concerned Citizens and City Project achieved with community allies illustrate principles of equitable infrastructure that can be implemented in and out of court: invest in people, invest in healthy communities, invest in democracy, and invest in justice. Grassroots participation requires full and fair information for communities to work effectively with government officials. Community leaders must work arm in arm with civil rights and environmental justice attorneys to reframe mainstream environmental issues as equal justice issues to improve environmental quality and quality of life for all. 

Sunset at Baldwin Hills ParkCommunity organizing, along with coalition building, has been a critical component of our success. Organizing is finding out what people want, and collective ways of getting it. The goals are to make concrete improvements in people’s lives, give people a sense of their own power, and alter the relations of power. City Project’s research on demographics, geographic information systems mapping, history, social science, and law—combined with community-based, participatory research—has informed our work on environmental justice and civil rights. Our media campaigns, including new media, helped draw attention to these environmental injustices and build support for their solutions. Outside the courts, legal and policy advocacy, including environmental review before suit and mediation, was crucial to successful outcomes.

Access to justice through the courts can be necessary to engage, educate, and empower the community within the context of a broader campaign. Access to justice through the courts is a profoundly democratic First Amendment right that is essential to secure a place at the table for people who traditionally have been and still are excluded by the executive and legislative branches. This is a lesson for foundations, many of which do not support this First Amendment right for people of color and low-income people. Why is there a lack of support for fully extending democratic rights to all people?

The case studies and strategies above rest on a common legal framework of civil rights and environmental justice laws, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its regulations, and the California corollary, California Government Code Section 11135 and its regulations. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its regulations, and the California corollary, California Government Code Section 11135 and its regulations, respectively, provide for equal access to public resources, including parks, and prohibit both intentional discrimination and unjustified discriminatory impact regardless of intent, on the basis of race, color, or national origin by recipients of federal or state financial assistance. The Civil Rights Act and the California Code prohibit policies and practices that have a disproportionate impact based on race, color, or national origin, that are not justified by business necessity, and for which there are less discriminatory alternatives to accomplish the same objective (See, e.g.,Committee Concerning Community Improvement v. City of Modesto, 583 F.3d 690 (9th Cir. 2009); Larry P. v. Riles, 793 F.2d 969, 981–83 (9th Cir. 1984); Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice, Title VI Legal Manual (Jan. 11, 2011)). Stated in positive terms, civil rights laws and principles require an equity analysis and plan with (1) a clear description of what is planned; (2) an analysis of the impact on all populations, including minority and low-income populations; (3) an analysis of available alternatives; (4) the documented inclusion of minority and low-income populations in the study and decision making; and (5) an implementation plan to resolve any concerns identified in the equity analysis.

Why does Williams keep fighting?:

Through the collaboration with The City Project over all these years, we know we can get things done. We don’t feel apathetic or powerless. We don’t feel things will happen regardless of what we do. Doing the right thing with an open heart, an open mind, can bear results. Our children and our communities are much better off. My brother the Reverend Eugene Williams, may he rest in peace, taught us that the major distinction between in other parts of the world and in the United States is not based on economics, but on who is organized versus disorganized. He was an organizer, my mother was an organizer, my sister is an organizer, I am a community organizer, and proud of it. We can work together to do better. It’s not even to fight, it’s a way of life. We take responsibility for making our place in this world a better place. We can be a voice for those who don’t see what we see and know what we know and have the experience that we have. Participation matters, you can make a difference, we have seen it in the Baldwin Hills and South Central.

The struggle never ends.

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