California must invest in cleaning up polluted communities

Pump jacks stand in a field being developed for drilling using fracking near Lost Hills in 2014.
Pump jacks stand in a field being developed for drilling using fracking near Lost Hills in 2014. Getty Images

Gasping for air in an asthma attack. Heart problems, cancer, stroke. These are the consequences of fossil fuels for millions of people in California’s most polluted communities, where 92 percent of residents are people of color.

While Gov. Jerry Brown’s revised budget proposal touts efforts to reduce California’s carbon footprint, it was silent on solving the persistent problem of air pollution. We need clear commitment to both a cooler atmosphere and cleaner air.

Allen Hernandez CCAEJ.jpg
Allen Hernandez

Under the new mandate of Assembly Bill 617, we can have both, but it will require the political will to stand up to polluting industries.

By Oct. 1, the California Air Resources Board is required to develop a statewide strategy on air pollution that must include restrictions on oil drilling and gas fracking near schools, hospitals, and homes. About 5 million Californians live within a mile of one or more oil and gas wells, so CARB must require setbacks from schools, hospitals, and homes, reduce air toxics from wells and support the phase-out of fossil fuel extraction as soon as possible.


Another key strategy under AB 617 is to pair regulation with incentives to move the trucking industry towards zero emissions. Air regulators must continue to push for rules that target the sources of diesel emissions, including warehouses, ports and congested highway corridors. More money to fight greenhouse gases can support the rapid transition of the trucking industry to fully eliminate dirty diesel from the air we breathe.

To effectively implement AB 617, CARB must also increase community engagement in the most polluted areas and partner with trusted organizations. For example, public notice of community meetings in all languages spoken in the community and interpreters can mean the difference between a rich diversity of views, and an empty room. Evening meetings and on-site child care would allow working parents to attend. Key documents and proposals should also be made available to the people who will benefit from AB 617.

Whether AB 617 succeeds or fails will depend on enough money to target air pollution in our smoggiest areas, along with a high bar for local air districts to improve residents’ health. The good news is that AB 617 will begin implementation in 2018. With $1.2 billion in this year’s budget to clean our air and improve community health, California is incredibly close to real progress on air pollution.

Allen Hernandez is executive director of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice. He can be contacted at