From Brown to Green

It's a myth that environmental laws are job killers. In fact, the East Bay is home to many cleaned-up toxic sites that are now spurring the economy.

During a Republican presidential primary debate last June, Michele Bachmann lit into the Environmental Protection Agency, recommending it be renamed the “job-killing organization of America.” Her fellow contenders nodded in agreement, each explaining how shutting down the EPA, or at least instituting a moratorium on regulations, would be a priority in their White House.

The GOP’s desire to kill America’s chief environmental regulator hasn’t just been grist for the bizarre sideshow that is the Republican Party’s presidential primary. Over the past year, Republicans in Congress — in actual positions of power — have succeeded in massively defunding the EPA. In March, no less than nineteen riders were floated on the floor of the House of Representatives to cut the EPA’s budget. Fifteen Republican senators even proposed deleting the EPA as a cabinet-level agency. The harshest of these legislative bombs were diffused, but the cuts that prevailed added up to the largest single year drop in EPA funding since 1981 when President Reagan (“Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do”) began his unprecedented assault on the greens.

Republicans by no means have a monopoly on the “job killer” trope. Moderate, so called-Blue Dog Democratic senators like Jay Rockefeller and Ben Nelson, who hail from states with huge corporate energy interests, have co-sponsored legislation to ditch specific EPA standards. Even President Obama recently reinforced the mythology that environmental regulations are counterproductive to economic development, saying in September that his decision to rescind ozone air-quality standards was essential to the nation’s economic recovery. Both parties also are seriously pursuing environmental deregulation of industry, and cuts to the nation’s major cleanup programs.

The problem with all of this, however, is that California’s economy is now crucially dependent on environmental regulation and remediation. This is especially true in cities where decades of industrial pollution have created an environment not only toxic to human health, but also economic investment.

In fact, cleaning up toxic sites has become a fundamental driver of the Bay Area’s economy. As a result, cutting the EPA’s budget, and possibly reducing funds for the state agency responsible for partnering in cleanup, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), will stall job creation and condemn huge swaths of urban California as economic dead zones.

But the fallacy that environmental laws kill jobs doesn’t end there. According to economists who study the impact of regulation on markets, California’s economy will likely add more jobs and develop new vibrant sectors of activity much faster if politicians embrace ambitious environmental goals. According to this emerging school of thought, environmental regulations aren’t only pivotal for human health and environmental quality, they stimulate innovation, and innovation is the key to California’s economy.

To understand why environmental cleanup is so essential, it’s helpful to go back a few decades and look at California’s previous economic booms. Following World War II, the Bay Area became an epicenter of manufacturing. Everything from chemicals and aircraft parts to semiconductors and food were produced in sprawling factories built atop what just a few years before had been orchards and pastures. This industrial manufacturing economy brought enormous growth leading to mass employment and expanding tax dollars for state and local governments. Cities grew, easterners migrated west, and much of the new workforce prospered through the 1950s and 1960s, decades that enshrined California’s “Golden State” image.

But the industrial boom had many dark sides. Among them was pollution. Lacking federal and state regulations, major corporations and the military dumped poisonous wastes into waterways, buried them on-site, and spewed toxins into the air where they would eventually settle onto surrounding communities.

“Until quite recently, there were few if any federal laws offering guidelines for governments attempting to regulate industries that consumed, produced, and disposed of toxic materials,” explained David Pellow, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. “There were few resources for citizens seeking to protect the environmental health of their communities, and for industries looking for guidance on these matters.” Pellow, who has closely studied the toxic legacy of past industries in California (see his book, The Silicon Valley of Dreams), says that it was only a matter of time before the toll of this pollution negatively affected the health of Californians, and the productivity of the state.

“The high-tech industry’s health toll is readily observable in the biographies of countless workers who have been disabled, poisoned, and who have experienced premature death as a result of exposure to toxins,” Pellow continued, adding that these health impacts have been a drag on the Bay Area economy. “These individuals who got sick frequently were the financial bedrock for their families, and those families were then economically disabled, causing further ripple effects across entire communities.” Added to this are health-care costs, borne largely by the public through Medicaid and other programs.

It wasn’t until the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 that the nation’s political debates began to focus on the environmental damage caused by chemical contamination. It took eight more years before Congress established the EPA. The California Environmental Quality Act was passed the same year, in 1970, but California’s Environmental Protection Agency would not be founded until 1991.

Moreover, between 1970 and today, the pace of environmental regulations and remediation programs was slow. Some say it was too piecemeal, or too late to prevent much of the economic harm that would befall exposed communities and the economy as a whole. The damage, in large part, had been done.

Today, California has about one hundred active sites on the EPA’s National Priorities List, a comprehensive tally of the known releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants warranting cleanup. In the East Bay these Superfund sites include a former pesticide plant in Richmond, Alameda’s Naval Air Station, and the AMCO Chemical site in West Oakland. With 29 sites identified for cleanup, Santa Clara County has the highest concentration of Superfund sites of any comparable region in the country, due largely to semiconductor and aerospace factories. The Los Angeles basin also has an enormous collection of Superfund sites. Much of California is checkered with extremely polluted threats to public health.

But far more numerous and economically damaging than these Superfund sites are the ubiquitous brownfields — toxic dumps that federal officials haven’t prioritized because they do not pose the same extreme risks as Superfund sites, but which are still health hazards. They’re also a big drag on the economy. “The tragedy of brownfields in this country,” explained Mark Gomez, a supervisor of Environmental Protection & Compliance with the City of Oakland, “stems largely from the failure of government and the courts to consistently enforce nuisance and disclosure laws prior to the advent of environmental regulations in the 1970s, coupled with regulatory overreach and confusion in the following years.

“If disclosure laws had been enforced regarding on-site contamination it would have discouraged businesses from contaminating their own properties because of the negative impact on the eventual re-sale value,” Gomez continued. “Had nuisance laws been enforced on releases of hazardous substances, it would have discouraged businesses from contaminating adjacent properties or natural resources, such as surface waters, because of the threat of a lawsuit or police action.”

Unfortunately, the government and the courts took a hands-off approach for decades, only instituting strict regulations in later years. “The result was that properties went from having significant value to being financial liabilities in the blink of an eye,” Gomez said.

In this sense, the environmental pollution caused by yesterday’s economy, and allowed because of lax or no environmental regulations, is preventing the new urban economy from taking shape. It’s been a costly detour for cities, especially the East Bay’s former industrial powerhouses like Oakland, Emeryville, and Richmond.

A perfect example of brownfields and the problems they pose in terms of economic development underlies much of Emeryville. Dominated by heavy industry until the 1970s when most companies closed up shop, the city was immensely contamianted. By the early 1990s, EPA staff had classified 213 acres, or about 27 percent of the city’s total footprint, as contaminated.

Because this was common knowledge, Emeryville was stuck; its economy bled jobs as employers closed down or relocated overseas. City leaders were unable to lure new residents and businesses. The ghosts of the city’s industrial past appeared to prevent any kind of future. The trap was set by declining tax revenues: Emeryville had no money to undertake the work required to clean up the land and water, and to chart a new course, and developers would not come to the rescue because the up-front costs were too high and public funds were unavailable. Retail stores — the essential sources of municipal tax dollars in post-Prop 13 California — could not be built on toxic land.

Enter the EPA and DTSC. Multiple federal grants in the 1990s allowed for site assessments to identify problem areas in Emeryville, thus reducing the uncertainty of potential developers looking to locate new business or housing in the city. In 1999 a half-million-dollar loan facilitated cleanup of the old Westinghouse Corporation’s electrical manufacturing site, an enormous block of land saturated with polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), a most persistent and deadly contaminant. Manufactured by Monsanto, and sold in the US until they were banned in 1979, PCBs were used in everything from paint to electrical insulators. Cleanup of similarly deadly chemicals at numerous other sites followed — facilitated by federal and Cal EPA expertise and funds.

These environmental cleanups also produced huge economic dividends as developers flocked to Emeryville to build on its former brownfields. According to statistics gathered by the DTSC, between 1991 and 2010, Emeryville’s property values increased 371 percent, from $870 million to about $4 billion today. New retail stores, hotels, and restaurants effectively doubled sales tax revenues for the city over the same period.

“Cleanup and redevelopment of formerly contaminated properties has allowed Emeryville to emerge from its industrial past and be reinvented,” noted Helen Bean, Emeryville’s economic development director. Emeryville is now widely cited as one of the star examples of economic rebirth through environmental remediation, seeded largely with federal and state grants and loans — funds that the GOP wants to slash.

But without the EPA and DTSC, the cleanup in Emeryville wouldn’t have happened. The city would have been caught in its toxic trap, unable to transition, unable to create thousands of construction jobs and hundreds of permanent jobs in the businesses that have opened there. According to Robert Colangelo, excutive director of the National Brownfield Association, the real estate market would have eventually abandoned Emeryville had state and federal agencies not partnered with the city to remediate the environment. “If people take do-nothing strategies,” Colangelo said with respect to brownfield pollution, “it grows and perpetuates blight and drags down the economy.”

In urban California, this might be an understatement.

Moreover, had cleanup never occurred, Emeryville’s residents would still be suffering from the health consequences. Their illnesses, in turn, would affect all of us, most directly because the state would be forced to dedicate public funds to cope with otherwise preventable public health problems, but also indirectly through lost economic activity due to sickness — the sorts of hidden, long-term costs Pellow has studied.

In 2009, Congresswoman Barbara Lee recognized the EPA’s work in Emeryville as a “key component for community revitalization,” noting that it allowed the East Bay to “turn problem properties into community assets.”

Colangelo’s group, the National Brownfield Association, estimates that there are more than one million brownfields nationwide, undervaluing and preventing use of as much as $2 trillion in real estate.

If Emeryville is the poster child for what’s possible on a city-wide level (even if it resulted in the construction of widely derided big box stores and expensive condos), then Oakland might best be understood as the poster child for what’s left to be done. Oakland is pockmarked with brownfield sites that reduce the availability of safe, affordable housing; prevent new companies from moving in; and harm the health of local residents. Contaminated land is a major but under-acknowledged reason for why the city’s economy has struggled in recent decades.

“Oakland, an older city with a history of industrial activity, felt the effects of pollution and abandonment more than most,” observed Gomez of the city’s Environmental Protection & Compliance department. “Frequently, the economics of the situation mean that brownfields lay vacant or underutilized for years — eyesores that become magnets for myriad problems.”

California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control has “certified” 57 different brownfield sites in Oakland, meaning the agency has extensively monitored for contaminants and cleaned up soil and groundwater to safe levels in these locations. But according to the agency’s own records, there are another 25 “active” cleanups still unfinished. As a result, these properties are not available for residential and commercial uses, and thus devalue parcels nearby. Besides these works in progress, there are another thirty properties in Oakland that require environmental assessments and cleanup, but have yet to be moved on.

One active remediation site in Oakland is the old Harris Dry Cleaners on Martin Luther King Jr. Way and 28th Street. This three-story brick building on a corner lot is well known among locals for the graffiti murals wrapped around its entranceway. There’s a school on the block behind it, and a community garden across the street. It’s the kind of building in exactly the sort of central location you’d think someone would have found a new, innovative use for — maybe shops, live/work lofts, or an events center. But beneath the building, the soil and groundwater are contaminated with tetrachloroethylene (also called PCE), an organic solvent widely used in dry cleaning. PCE is carcinogenic and suspected of causing Parkinson’s disease. It can be easily inhaled or absorbed through skin contact. If burned at a high enough temperature, PCE can turn into a deadly gas called phosgene, which was used as a chemical warfare agent in World War I.

Last year, DTSC completed its investigation of Harris Dry Cleaners, noting high levels of PCE, but it hasn’t been cleaned up yet. For now the building drags down real estate prices nearby, and threatens the health of local residents. Funding and a sense of urgency may be lacking partly because no private developer has targeted the site for redevelopment. This is one of the inequities of how toxic dumps are cleaned — if a developer isn’t interested in the site, then local government agencies are less likely to vie for the scarce funds needed to remediate it.

Professor Nancy Green Leigh of the Georgia Institute of Technology calls these kinds of sites “low-to-no market value brownfields.” Oakland and other mostly non-white, low-income communities in the East Bay are full of these problem sites. According to Green Leigh, the stumbling block is that “the current practice of many brownfield redevelopment projects is to select only the most marketable sites for remediation and redevelopment, essentially perpetuating the age-old ‘creaming’ process. Private and public developers’ avoidance of the lowest market value parcels typically excludes disadvantaged neighborhoods from programs aimed at redeveloping brownfields and creates the potential for widening existing inequalities between better-off and worse-off neighborhoods.”

Unlike Emeryville’s real estate, which was seized on by land speculators two decades ago, much of West and East Oakland’s polluted property remains toxic and in need of remediation. Cleanup funding therefore has a smaller constituency of advocates with political influence. Yet even with fewer private sector instigators of cleanup, Oakland is sprinkled with examples of economic rejuvenation via environmental remediation.

“Many of Oakland’s redevelopment success stories over the past ten years have taken place on former brownfields,” Gomez pointed out. “Most are residential developments that have taken advantage of pre-existing commercial neighborhoods and mass transit infrastructure. New residents have less need to spend time behind the wheel, thereby reducing air pollution, and their presence in the neighborhood has motivated new businesses to move in.”

All this new activity, said Gomez, “creates jobs and a more vibrant, safer place to live and work.” And for Gomez and his colleagues in the city’s Environmental Services Division, the economic revitalization of Oakland is second only to the primacy of protecting people’s health. The city has received more than $4 million since 1995 to investigate toxic sites, so at least the scale of the problem is becoming known.

But a different problem with the way cleanup is funded has recently arisen. Some of Oakland’s biggest brownfields lie in the sprawling, economically depressed areas around the Coliseum, and around Foothill Boulevard and Seminary Avenue. The city has staked cleanup efforts in these zones on massive redevelopment proposals, including grandiose ideas like building new privately financed stadiums to entice the A’s and Raiders to stick around. Thrown in would be enormous projects, including housing, shopping centers, and transit facilities. No one really knows what the final blueprints will look like, but no matter what, it will require lots of state funding. In years past, the city’s redevelopment agency footed these bills. But the recent elimination of redevelopment agencies by Governor Jerry Brown and the legislature means that state tax dollars previously allocated for these sorts of big, publicly seeded development projects are probably gone. Budget pressures exerted by the loss of redevelopment agency funds could further skew what few environmental remediation projects move forward.

And if Congress and the president continue to slash EPA funding, it’s possible that specific remediation projects in the East Bay and beyond could become stalled, which means that significant sums of property and retail tax dollars will never become available for cities that have been hard hit by decades of capital flight.

For example, the former Lane Metal Finishers site on San Pablo Avenue at 30th Street in Oakland is contaminated by a cocktail of volatile chemicals and poisonous compounds, including sodium hydroxide; hydrochloric, nitric, and sulfuric acids; cadmium; and potassium cyanide. Chemicals detected in soil, ground water, and soil gas include trichloroethylene and vinyl chloride. In homes and businesses adjacent to the site, EPA staff measured toxic gases in concentrations exceeding state safety limits.

A school, a child-care center, and several churches are within 1,000 feet of the Lane Metal Finishers site. The neighborhood is predominantly black and Asian, and working class. EPA is currently carrying out a pilot study to attempt to extract soil vapors, but more work needs to be done to protect nearby residents and to bring this real estate back into the economy, hopefully in a way that benefits those who live there.

But funds are scarce. “We have made cuts just like everyone else to accommodate for the state’s budget shortfall,” admitted Lindsay VanLaningham of Cal EPA. “We’ve cut positions, cellphones, and travel.” VanLaningham noted, however, that “because [DTSC] is almost 97-percent special funded, we are able to continue with our core programs that protect and preserve the environment and public health.” This is because Cal EPA and DTSC’s funds come largely from fees and penalties paid by corporations and developers whose activities can negatively impact the environment.

Yet even these fees and penalties are not safe from misguided or cynical attempts by politicians to “reform” regulatory policy or “fix the budget.” Early in 2011, Republican state lawmakers demanded an overhaul of California environmental regulations as part of any possible budget deal with Governor Brown. At the time, they were essentially talking about eliminating the regulatory sources of these revenues, a move that might require major cuts to programs like brownfield cleanup.

And a wider assault on environmental regulations could cause economic stagnation across California and the nation’s economy in more systematic ways.

So if environmental regulations can turn brownfields into fields of green, why have mainstream economists, politicians, and business leaders gotten it so backward? In 1991, a professor in the Harvard Business School — hardly a bastion of environmentalism — was among the first to question the mythology surrounding environmental regulation, touching off two decades of debate and research that has provided ample evidence in favor of strong environmental laws and regulations as good economic policy.

“Strict environmental regulations do not inevitably hinder competitive advantage against rivals,” wrote Michael Porter in a Scientific American article more than twenty years ago. “Indeed, they often enhance it.”

Porter’s point was two-pronged and designed to appeal to his audience of fellow economists and business leaders. On the one hand he surmised that in the absence of strong environmental laws and regulations, firms, and even whole economies, actually waste resources. This lack of efficiency causes them to be much less competitive with other companies and regions. With smart, focused regulations aimed at reducing wasteful pollution, productivity rises and the whole economy grows. Second, Porter conjectured that well-designed regulations actually can spur technological and resource innovation, leading not only to compliance and a healthier environment, but perhaps even savings for companies, and whole new business opportunities for those who do the cleanup.

An entire new school of economists is testing this theory with rigorously designed experiments and case studies. Their findings, overall, are that there is no inherent “jobs versus environment” problem.

“In reality, the few empirical studies that have tracked actual changes in employment from environmental regulation suggest that there is either no impact, or a small positive impact on employment,” explained Mark Cohen, a professor of management and law at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. Cohen’s academic research into the relationship between environmental law and the economy took off in the early 1990s when he became the co-director of Vanderbilt’s Center for Environmental Management Studies. Previously, he had worked as a senior research economist for multiple branches of the federal government including the Federal Trade Commission and the EPA. His forthcoming book, The Distributional Consequences of Energy and Climate Policy, a painstakingly researched volume drawing on the most recent research and available data, directly addresses the relationship between government regulation and economic growth.

According to Cohen, the relationship is probably neutral when all is fully accounted for. In other words, regulations pertaining to pollution, resource exploitation, and other environmental harms are neither inherently “good” nor “bad” for the immediate economic prospects for growth. However, they can be good or bad to specific parties who might benefit from certain existing regulations, or the lack thereof, at the expense of others. Thus, Cohen says the real reasons why environmental regulations have become a whipping post for many lawmakers, and the interests they represent, is probably political in nature, having more to do with the ways that environmental policy affects the distribution of income, or how many regulations can undermine existing monopolies or privileges in favor of innovators.

Cohen offered the example of new laws that might require more stringent pollution controls on fossil fuel power plants: “Either those plants will be built with more pollution controls, or alternative and renewable energy sources of electricity [or energy efficiency projects] will be needed to fulfill the demand for electricity. So, if there is reduced investment in coal-fired power plants,” resulting from new environmental regulations, Cohen concluded that “there will be investment elsewhere to produce the needed electricity.” In other words, the economy neither grows nor shrinks, but the distribution of wealth and power certainly shifts.

In recent years, California has seen exactly this scenario play out. A 2006 law virtually banned electricity produced by coal-fired power plants, either from the few existing coal plants located in the state, or from existing and planned coal plants in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and elsewhere. Predictably, the main opponents to this new regulation on CO2 and mercury pollution were entrenched coal companies and utilities with planned major coal energy investments. Some called the regulation a “job killer” and claimed it would tank California’s economy, but partly because it was signed into law by then Republican Governor Schwarzenegger, the claim that it was a misguided liberal environmental initiative didn’t stick.

Rather than eliminating jobs and bogging down the economy, the new mandate has instead guaranteed a massive influx of money and labor into the construction of cleaner power plants. These mostly include gas-fired generators, but also a significant shift of investment has gone toward solar, wind, and geothermal projects. As a result, today only 7.7 percent of California’s gross system power is sourced from coal-fired plants, whereas in 2005 it was 20 percent, according to the California Energy Commission.

In short, laws that reduced coal electricity purchases reduced carbon and mercury emissions, while also providing a much needed stimulant for the state’s green economy. The Bay Area, in particular, boasts perhaps the highest concentration of solar firms of any US region. Companies here work across all levels of the industry, from major designer-developers of thermal solar arrays like BrightSource Energy, Inc., to installers of photovoltaic arrays like Sungevity, both based in Oakland. Various venture capital and investment funds in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, meanwhile, are eagerly helping finance solar expansion.

California’s laws and regulations give solar and other renewable energy companies a leg up in one of the largest energy markets in the world, allowing them to operate on a more level playing field with the entrenched powers of the major utilities and energy companies heavily vested in coal, oil, and gas technologies. This has tempted companies like SunEdison, which has developed more than five hundred mega watts of solar energy across the country, to relocate its headquarters to the Bay Area, a place where the company notes there is clear demand for the product and a talented, experienced workforce. “We believe that California will be the largest market, and we want to be part of that,” SunEdison president Carlos Domenech told the San Francisco Chronicle in October last year.

So why does the jobs-versus-environment trope still get so much play? “An important reason you often hear this,” observed Cohen, “is that the entrenched industries with existing political connections are those most likely to be negatively affected by environmental regulations — while those who are most likely to benefit are more dispersed and oftentimes politically less connected.”

“Those who have to pay the cost of environmental policies and those who benefit from them are often not the same companies,” noted Stefan Ambec, a senior researcher at the Toulouse School of Economics in France who concurs with Cohen on the subject of why many environmental regulations are unfairly demonized. Ambec’s view is informed by the situation in Europe, where regulations are much more developed and stringent than in the United States, but he observes that the sources of opposition to regulation and remediation are very much the same.

“Big companies in concentrated industries like steel, oil, and electricity production are reluctant to [support] policies like the carbon tax, or carbon trading, and the new companies of the ‘eco-industries’ are often smaller firms and less politically powerful,” Ambec continued. This lack of political power and lack of resources to make their case in the media, according to Ambec, results in clean-tech and green-tech firms losing out to established, dirtier companies using older technologies, simply because the status quo outspends emergent innovators in securing favorable politicians and laws.

According to Cohen, the truth is: “There is no evidence that countries with strong environmental regulations lose their competitive edge. If anything, countries have found that environmental regulation spurs technological innovation which produces opportunities for them to export pollution control technologies.”

Looking back over the past half-century, Pellow contends that the absence of environmental regulation has been a “lose-lose-lose” scenario for the Bay Area and the nation. “It has contributed to greater public health and ecosystem risks vis-à-vis toxic chemicals, fewer protections for workers in those industries, and ultimately greater vulnerability to economic instability as those industries became more mobile, more global, and easily picked up to find greener pastures in other nations where regulations were even weaker.” These unregulated industries left behind a toxic legacy of brownfields that act as deadweights on the local economies of many California cities today. Added to this multi-trillion-dollar problem of accumulated past pollution, economists like Cohen and Ambec warn that we risk further economic stagnation if we fall for the “jobs versus environment” myth.

While President Obama stumbled hard several times in his first term on exactly this issue, there are signs that his administration is increasingly willing to take a more enlightened path. During a January 10 visit to the EPA’s headquarters, Obama told more than eight hundred staffers that he will “stand with them every inch of the way” during the year ahead. Calling industry and Republican demands for rollbacks of the most fundamental regulations governing power plants, farms, factories, and vehicle fleets a “false debate,” Obama said: “We don’t have to choose between dirty air and dirty water or a growing economy. We can make sure that we are doing right by our environment, and in fact putting people back to work all across America.”

Backing up these words is a recent landmark regulation approved by the president. In December Obama enacted strict rules reducing mercury pollution from power plants against much opposition from owners of the nation’s dirtiest coal plants. EPA economists project that these standards will actually create 46,000 short-term jobs, and 8,000 permanent positions in the utility industry. It was exactly the kind of smart regulation that, contrary to the myth, will both protect the environment and create jobs in a cleaner economy.

The bad news is that even if Obama has found the courage to push for stronger, smarter regulations, he may not be able to do so until after the elections. Many political analysts think the House of Representatives will remain in Republican control, and that the Senate may pass into the hands of Republicans next year.

The significance of this should be clear: Republicans are much more hostile to environmental regulations. In the 2012 election cycle, Republican candidates have taken the lion’s share of campaign contributions from dirty industries seeking to avoid new regulations that would undermine their monopoly status and force them to redistribute profits away from executive bonuses and shareholder dividends.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 87 percent of coal company contributions have gone to Republican coffers. For chemical manufacturers, it’s 78 percent — 88 percent for oil and gas companies. If these entrenched interests buy enough seats in the next Congress, perhaps the best Obama can offer in terms of environmental cleanup funding and regulations is nothing — leaving only a veto for polluter-friendly bills.

In California, the situation could be worse. Even though a majority of legislators say they favor cleanup, regulations, and the development of clean technologies, the state’s budget crisis threatens to tank environmental initiatives. And the abolition of redevelopment agencies threatens to eliminate billions in local funds used to leverage even more federal money and private investment on contaminated properties.

Helen Bean of Emeryville knows better than anyone the impact this will have on cities where economic recovery absolutely depends on remediation. “Redevelopment agencies have provided a significant source of funding for brownfield remediation and, as of February 1, this funding will be terminated,” she noted. “Without the focused efforts of the Emeryville Redevelopment Authority and its work to force partnerships with EPA and other funding entities, the former brownfield sites now occupied by parks, commercial centers, affordable and market-rate housing would likely still be fenced, abandoned, and un-utilized.”

What’s more, the budget crunch is undermining the state’s regulators by default. “By terminating redevelopment agencies,” Bean continued, “the state of California loses a very important tool in brownfield remediation — the Polanco Act.” That legislation, as Bean explained, “allows redevelopment agencies to go after ‘responsible parties’ — those entities that actually polluted the ground and water — and require them to bear the costs of cleanup.”

Thus, even without climate deniers and coal industry figureheads in office, California’s budget crisis threatens to eliminate the tools, imperfect as they are, that can be of most use in seeking a green economic recovery.


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