Residents Take the Reins on Air Quality

State's air pollution measure moves forward in Richmond.

In 2017, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation with the potential to significantly improve the air quality — and by extension, the health — of residents in some of the state’s most polluted areas. But “potential” remains the key word.

The legislation was known as Assembly Bill 617, part of a package that included extension of the state’s cap-and-trade emissions program. Because such statewide emissions limitations don’t necessarily improve the air quality in specific local communities, the program to be created by AB 617 was included as an offering to environmentalists.

Last September, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) selected ten communities for initial participation, including greater Richmond (Richmond, North Richmond, and San Pablo), West Oakland, South Sacramento, and seven communities outside of Northern California. It also set in motion the creation of community steering committees designed to devise emissions-monitoring and emissions-reduction plans. Local air quality boards such as the Bay Area Air Quality Management District were empowered to provide “grants to community-based organizations for technical assistance and to support community participation in the programs.”

But the devil — or possibly the angel — lies in the “community participation” part. West Oakland has already moved into the emissions-reduction phase of its program, due to the long-term monitoring and research conducted primarily by the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project and its partners. But in Richmond, which lacked such a partner, there is far more work to be done. Some observers have questioned whether the process can complete its first phase of work by its September deadline.

“With its vote on September 27, 2018, the air districts’ one-year clock to develop the required emissions monitoring/reduction program began ticking down,” environmental lawyers Aaron Wilensky and Malcolm C. Weiss wrote in an October blog post. “But, when looking at everything the air district must accomplish in that year (developing the emissions monitoring/reduction plans, establishing steering committees, determining community boundaries, etc.), it is unclear that they will be able to meet the deadline while also satisfactorily meeting AB 617, CARB, and the selected communities’ emissions reductions goals.”

Because of its determined emphasis on community input, Richmond’s process is unique in California, Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia observes. Many of the other selected areas are employing much more “top-down” processes, in which the air districts are choosing steering committee members. Air district staffers have likewise pointed to the Richmond process as a role model for other parts of the state.

But with grass roots come possible weeds. The absence of an entrenched partner such as the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project means that the Richmond initiative only has one year to create an inclusive steering committee not dominated by industry; hold regular meetings; and then decide what substances and chemicals to monitor for, with what equipment, in which locations. Many of those questions had already been answered in West Oakland before the passage of AB 617, which is why that initiative is already monitoring area air quality and beginning to develop an emissions-reduction plan.

Karen Magliano, division chief with CARB’s air quality data branch, said the Richmond steering committee “does have a lot of work ahead of them and will likely be meeting frequently.” That may have been an understatement.

The Richmond Community Summit was held Feb. 16, 2019 and attended by nearly 100 people, who were asked if they had interest in sitting on the steering committee. From the applications, also available from the air district, the design team chose 35 people for the steering committee, predominantly Richmond residents. Nonresidents with scientific expertise, and a select few representing Richmond industries and businesses also were included. It was determined that steering committee members would be required to sign disclosure agreements, indicating if they had any conflicts of interest, such as belonging to organizations receiving money from industries. At the same time, the first steering committee “co-lead” was chosen: Willie Robinson, president of the Richmond branch of the NAACP, and a retired architectural engineer. His experience so far is that “community-driven” remains the mandate, though he acknowledged the challenges in including different ages, ethnicities and genders, as well as clarifying the exact geographic boundaries of the monitoring.

Now the steering committee must determine exactly what will be monitored for, and where. “Residents know the impacts,” Magliano said, “and they know the sources they are observing.”

But awareness alone will not be enough to devise an effective air-monitoring regimen. For instance, Elizabeth Noth, an assistant researcher at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, Environment Health Sciences division, which also is monitoring Richmond’s air quality, said results can vary neighborhood by neighborhood and even street by street. Various sources contribute to air pollution, including industry of all sizes, ship and train traffic, as well as diesel trucks. Coal trains primarily impact the adjacent neighborhoods with their “fugitive emissions” of dust, she said, while ozone is more city-wide. On the other hand, Boris Lukanov of the nonprofit PSE Healthy Energy, has written that Richmond’s Chevron refinery is known to be “a significant source of hydrogen sulfide, sulfur oxides, and volatile organic compound emissions from the processing units as well as from the crude oil and other feedstock chemicals that are unloaded at the Chevron wharf complex.” Lukanov is now a member of the steering committee

Data collected about these sources during the initial year-long monitoring cycle is key for many reasons. First, the implementation of remediation measures will be based on it. “The next step is developing an air pollution reduction plan involving both stationary and mobile sources,” Gioia said. But AB 617 itself does not mandate air-quality improvements. It only created the process for the legislature to appropriate money, Gioia observed. “We will have to fight for funding each year,” he said.

Gioia sees three possible avenues to better air for Richmond residents: 1) new regulations imposed by existing agencies; 2) funding for facilities to reduce emissions, partially funded by cap-and-trade dollars (Robinson specifically mentioned support for small, local businesses which could be assisted in updating equipment, for example) and 3) land-use ordinances approved by city and county.

Given the likely push-back, Gioia said the community has to stay involved. “We’re used to seeing industry push back on any possibility of new regulations,” said Gioia, who also sits on the air district’s board. “That’s what they do.”

But Gioia believes the signs are encouraging. The potential for failure looms. But the potential for real improvement in public health through better air is there as well.

Steering committee meetings are open to the public. The next meeting will be held May 15, 5:30-8 p.m., Richmond City Recreation Complex, 3230 Macdonald Ave., Richmond. For more information, visit and search for Richmond.

Editor’s Note: Journalist and activist Janis Hashe helped create the initial community summit that drafted a charter and recruited members for the Richmond-area steering committee that will direct the area’s air-quality monitoring program.

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