In the 1990ís, Los Angeles has gained more attention for being the City of Smog than the City of Angels. Faced with this reality, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) (the agency charged with implementing programs to meet state and federal air quality standards for the Los Angeles metropolitan area) opened the nationís first air pollution market in 1993. Dubbed, "RECLAIM," for "Regional Clean Air Initiatives Market" the programís development was encouraged by EPA.
RECLAIM works by allocating a limited number of pollution rights to area industries and then allowing those industries to buy and sell each otherís rights. If a company can sell its pollution rights for more than it costs to install environmentally cleaner machines, it will make the eco-friendly switch. This way, SCAQMD can allow industry to regulate itself, instead of going through the inefficient "command and control" process, whereby SCAQMD mandates the use of cleaner machines and polices industries to make sure they use them.
For the first few years, RECLAIM seemed like a great idea. In 1996, President Clinton honored the program by giving its creators a Presidential Award for Sustainable Development. Environmental collaboration between government agencies and industry seemed like the way to go.
But in 1997, Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), a statewide environmental group, claimed that a free market pollution economy led to the concentration of air pollutants over those least able to afford protection. Oil refineries, they noticed, were clumped in the predominantly Latino neighborhoods of San Pedro and El Segundo, while all of the recent air quality improvements were visible in wealthier, white areas. In July of 1997, CBE petitioned EPA to withdraw its approval of the RECLAIM program on environmental justice grounds. At the same time, CBE filed suit in Federal court against the oil companies that had concentrated their refineries in L.A.ís impoverished neighborhoods.
The law suits did not go well for CBE. Two weeks after filing the case against the oil companies, CBE voluntarily dismissed its claims. During those intervening two weeks, however, CBE organizers held rallies and press conferences, accusing the industry of environmental racism, and demanding change. Unfortunately for CBE, one of the companies, Tosco corporation, responded by suing CBE for slander, libel, and malicious prosecution. See 41 F. Supp. 2d 1062 (1999). That federal case was dismissed for want of subject matter jurisdiction, but left open the option for a state suit.
Perhaps, however, CBE was less interested in crafting strong, legal challenges to RECLAIM than about bringing the publicís attention to the problem. If this is their goal, then it may be working. The shouts of environmental racism rattled SCAQMD officials, leading to the dismissal of one chairman and the hiring of a new one in September of 1997. The new chairman, Dr. William A. Burke, at his first SCAQMD meeting announced that environmental justice would be a central focus of SCAQMD. In the coming months, SCAQMD launched its largest toxic air pollution study in a decade. SCAQMD focused on the monitoring of "hot spots" Ė specific areas that absorb more than their fair share of air pollutionís punch.
Paralleling the RECLAIM issue in this case study is SCAQMDís car-scrapping program. Instituted at the same time as RECLAIM, the car-scrapping plan allows industries to buy old, pollution-spewing clunkers and junk the cars. For each car junked, the industry is allowed to emit that many more pollutants. CBE attacked this program as well, since it also might lead to the creation of hot spots.
In summary, one of the most exciting aspects of this case study is that it takes two Clinton/Gore environmental initiatives Ė environmental justice and environmental collaboration Ė and suggests that the two ideas could be on a collision course.
The newspaper articles, California Environmental Insider clippings, and AQMD press releases give a fast, easy overview of the issues in this case. The Duke Environmental Law and Policy Forum article, written by a group of CBE staffers, gives a more detailed, comprehensive look at these problems.