As Chair of the California Assembly's Environmental Safety & Toxic Materials Committee, Rep. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-35th) has been witness to various attempts at making brownfields redevelopment easier, safer and more attractive. MIR was pleased to speak with the Assemblywoman about one such effort-AB 702, which she is sponsoring-as well as the continuing need for statewide standards. We also got her take on the Coastal Commission's recent legal challenge, and how municipal and State officials are dealing with energy-drained coffers.
Assemblywoman, as the Chair of the Select Committee on Coastal Protection, what's your reaction to the Superior Court's recent decision rendering the California Coastal Commission's governance structure unconstitutional?
Simply put, it's an incorrect ruling. The issue has been raised on a few prior lawsuits, and the courts have always found that it is not unconstitutional. I don't know whether to call it "judge shopping" or "court shopping," but the fact is they finally got a judge to agree with them.
I'm confident the decision will be overturned on appeal, and I certainly don't think it will lead to the demise of the Coastal Commission. It's possible they'll have to reconfigure how appointments are made, but I doubt even that will be necessary.
And as a legislator representing a number of coastal communities in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, what's been the significance of the Coastal Commission's 28-year history for your constituents?
The Coastal Commission's role has been critical in terms of implementing the will of the people stated in the 1972 Coastal Act-to protect and preserve the California Coast, in terms of both ensuring public access and protecting against rampant development, misuse and overuse. And that's certainly important to my constituents.
The word now coming out of Washington is that further oil drilling off the Santa Barbara Coast is in fact not ruled out. How are you and the California Legislature responding to that?
I am adamantly opposed to any further drilling off the Coast, and I think the rest of California generally agrees. In 1998, the Legislature issued a resolution calling on the President to ban any further offshore oil drilling, which passed substantially with HR 20. And there are now at least two more resolutions being proposed to call on the President not to adopt what we consider a foolish, irresponsible policy to extend and expand drilling off the California Coast. The marine ecosystem is so critical and so fragile, and I think the people of California recognize that.
We really need to do something other than dig holes in our earth-there are alternatives. The notion of developing alternative fuel sources and zero emission vehicles is something that is clearly supported in my district-and an issue that really needs to be addressed by the Legislature. The process of digging up and burning fossil fuels has already created some serious problems with global warming, ecosystem degradation, and air and water pollution, and I think Mr. Bush has more than paid back his buddies in Texas. It's time now to protect the environment and our coastal resources.
Let's turn to your role as Chair of the Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee in the Legislature. Can you talk a little bit about the brownfields work that the Committee is doing with AB 702, a measure that would provide grants to ten cities, counties or redevelopment agencies for multi-parcel brownfields risk assessment? What's the purpose here, and what's the intention?
I introduced AB 702 after dealing with a variety of brownfields approaches over the last couple of years. It's really an effort to think outside the traditional box of parcel-by-parcel review and management and instead utilize a multi-parcel planning approach. In most cases, contamination extends beyond the simple, manmade delineation of what is a parcel-the materials tend to seep through the soil along with rain and water, transferring to other locations that are not necessarily within that particular parcel.
This bill would require the various agencies involved to coordinate their data, as the biggest problem is usually the unknown: that is, the extent to which there is a toxic situation, where the problem exists, and the types of contaminants present. The data would be accumulated on a multi-parcel basis and shared among all the parties involved-including the different government agencies, the developers and the public-so that the proper interactions can take place to make these blighted areas economically viable.
There are other pieces of brownfields legislation moving forward at both the State and Federal levels-including State Senator Martha Escutia's recently reintroduced SB 32 and the U.S. Senate's recent passage of the $200-million Brownfields Revitalization and Environmental Restoration Act of 2001, authored by Senator Barbara Boxer. What's the thrust here? What are we trying to accomplish in the West regarding brownfields that requires Federal and State intervention?
Brownfields are a particular problem in our urban cores, often in severely economically depressed areas. Instead of leaving these properties unusable-which creates a real drain on the neighborhood-brownfields remediation is an attempt to restore both the economy and the social vibrancy of the central urban core, as well as to protect the public health.
Frankly, in the West-with all the oil exploration and various other processes that have been the norm here over the past so many years-we have a serious challenge ahead. If we want to accommodate the tremendous growth projected for California over the next 20 years-and do it smartly, without sprawling over all the undeveloped land in the State-it's critical that we reinvigorate these urban cores and make them desirable and safe places to live and grow.
We've carried a number of articles in Metro Investment Report about brownfields and the question of "how clean is clean enough?" Two of those articles-one interview with attorney Jennifer Hernandez and another with Resources Secretary Mary Nichols-talked about the need for statewide standards as the only solution. I wonder if that question has come before you and your Committee, and how the Legislature is reacting to it?
That is the $64,000 question: How clean is clean enough? And that is where there has been a good deal of both concern and disagreement. If you live next door to the site or want to put a school or a housing development on it, obviously you want it to be as clean as possible. We've had people come before us at our Committee hearings who were living in housing projects where the remediation was discovered to have been inadequate, and many of them were suffering from cancers, pulmonary diseases, respiratory problems. They want it a lot cleaner. But there are others who say, "Well, let's just clean it to a basic level."
Unfortunately, we haven't been able to get the concrete science as to where those levels should be. I've been trying to hold DTSC's feet to the fire to set up a screening process by which we can determine the appropriate levels for the six to ten major known toxins-including arsenic-so that we can at least start with a basic cleanup procedure.
In this discussion-and this is where the rubber is going to hit the road-we need to make sure that if property is not cleaned up to residential or school site standards, then it's never used for that purpose. We can identify different levels for the different uses-residential, commercial, industrial-but the question is: What are those levels?
They say that hard cases make bad law, and the fiasco over the Belmont Learning Complex high school here in Los Angeles has affected the review process for new school facilities for all of California. Going back to our interview with attorney Jennifer Hernandez-who said the Belmont fiasco was like screaming "toxic fire" at these communities-again, the question is: Are there any standards by which we can judge the cost and time parameters it takes to find land for these new facilities? (We need 150 schools here in Los Angeles.) Is there any discussion in the Capitol to put in place a procedure that makes sense so that school districts can get through this process in a meaningful and timely way?
I would disagree with that characterization of how the Legislature has reacted to the Belmont school problem. But if we don't "do it right the first time," it will cost too much in potential dollars and health risks to fix.
Finding available land for desperately needed school facilities is a serious problem throughout the State-whether it involves cleaning up toxic sites in urban centers or siting schools on agricultural land that's still being farmed. In both cases, we really need to address the adequacy of the preliminary assessments-the main debacle in the Belmont crisis-and establish some sensible standards.
You've also been looking at the issue of toxic mold. Can you elaborate a little bit on this issue?
In looking at school health and safety, we discovered that many of the portable trailer facilities-which were designed for a use of five years-have been in existence now for almost 30. In that time, the air quality has deteriorated along with all the different chemicals and preservatives.
We then came to realize that there's a whole world of indoor air pollution. And it's not just chemicals that are causing the pollution; houses or workplaces that have not been adequately ventilated or constructed properly are ripe for different sorts of toxic molds as well, which can cause significant health problems.
The problem of toxic molds is much greater than initially thought, and it's expanding throughout the State, particularly in certain areas. So far we've done nothing to a) identify exactly what toxic molds are, or b) figure out how to remedy the situation. My bill, AB 284, would set up an education program to provide constructive information about what the public can do to avoid these hazards. Particularly in homes and workplaces where people are complaining of specific ailments that are difficult to diagnose and treat, we need to figure out how to change the environment in order to eliminate the risk. People spend so much time indoors, and we want them to be able to breathe healthy air.
Let's switch gears and move on to the issue of municipal finance. Ventura County's budget is significantly challenged right now, as is the State's budget due to the energy crisis. The refrain from local government is always that the State is insensitive to the needs of locals post Prop. 13. I'm wondering how you're juggling your responsibilities as a State legislator with the growing demands of local government for a secure and predictable revenue stream so they can prudently manage their local budgets?
The strained State-local relationship is an issue that I've been very aware of since coming to Sacramento. In fact, I co-authored legislation that would have capped the ERAF percentage going to the State. We also tried to put a substantial amount of money in last year's budget to go back to local communities, and we made the same attempt this year. But, of course, with the budget now in such an uncertain condition, the Governor has deleted the entire $250 million allotment that we had placed in the May revise. Whenever we pass legislation, I'm cognizant of not wanting to place a greater burden on the cities and counties than already exists.
It's an incredibly challenging situation because the needs in the State are just so enormous. Whether it's the housing shortage, infrastructure and road maintenance, the jobs/housing balance and the concept of "Smart Growth," schools, the college and university system, our health and mental health programs-the future of the State is in serious jeopardy because of the lack of adequate funding. Likewise, the needs of local communities to meet the direct concerns of their constituents are also grave. I don't claim to have all the answers, but we're at least trying not to impose new mandates locally that we can't fund.
Let's close with this question: The Legislature this year started out with high hopes of budget surpluses, and those hopes are now being seriously challenged by the energy crisis. Will this legislative session seriously address the agenda you just described? Is there any room to make a difference this year?
We've all had to lower our expectations some, but there are certainly areas where we can still make progress. For instance, the things we've talked about-brownfields cleanup, coastal protection, schools. We're still planning to fully fund the education program in the budget.
That being said, energy has been the primary and critical issue this year, and until we get the problem(s) resolved, it will continue to carry the greatest weight. Some of us had hoped for more emphasis on renewable forms of energy, but the State has done a tremendous job with conservation. Hopefully, as time goes by, we will continue to be more and more efficient.