Opinion

Kinkisharyo and IBEW win; CEQA loses?

New deal between Kinkisharyo and IBEW conveniently satisfies all of labor's environmental concerns

When Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the deal he had helped broker between Japanese light-rail manufacturer Kinkisharyo International and the electrical workers union, it was a win for the economy in Los Angeles County. But for environmentalists? Not so much.

At issue was whether Kinkisharyo would add a manufacturing facility to its assembly and testing operations in the county. The company won a $900-million contract from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 2012 based in part on its promise to employ more people and build cars here, but two manufacturing sites it proposed in Palmdale drew a series of real or threatened environmental challenges by organized labor and its allies. Fed up, the company notified Palmdale officials in October that it would take its manufacturing operation (which would build the shells of the rail cars, which are now imported from Japan) to another state.

In a letter to The Times, a local executive for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers insisted that the talks hadn't foundered over the IBEW's demands for an easier path to organizing Kinkisharyo's workers. "As a union official, I believe in the right of everyone to organize for better pay, benefits and working conditions," Marvin Kropke of Pasadena wrote. "But our recent talks with Kinkisharyo have been about environmental issues — namely, its failure to ensure the proposed manufacturing plant will be built in a way that does not harm residents of Palmdale."

Yet the deal announced Tuesday makes no mention of new environmental protections that Kinkisharyo will add to its plans. Nor does it promise any changes to the site or Kinkisharyo's manufacturing processes that will reduce emissions or mitigate other potential environmental harms. That's because there were no such changes.

Instead, the mayor's office announced that "labor and community groups ... agreed that all environmental challenges are now moot."

In other words, now that the IBEW had reached a deal with Kinkisharyo, the company's opponents no longer needed to use the California Environmental Quality Act to beat it into submission.

That's not to say Kinkisharyo and its backers were above reproach. As The Times' editorial board asserted last month, the company and Palmdale city officials "appeared to cut corners on CEQA and were prepared to build a factory without much study of its potential impact."

The initial CEQA challenge led Kinkisharyo to drop its initial site in favor of doing the work at its current location, which may be more suitable for manufacturing. The IBEW and its allies then threatened to challenge the new site on environmental grounds, which would have caused delays that Kinkisharyo couldn't abide. That led the company to say it would build the car shells out of state, prompting Garcetti to intervene and leading to the deal announced Tuesday.

The agreement includes something for everybody at the table. Kinkisharyo can move ahead with the manufacturing plant without fear of a CEQA lawsuit or other environmental challenge by organized labor and its allies. The company will let the IBEW try to organize its employees through sign-ups ("card check") instead of a secret ballot vote. Advocates of low-income workers won the MTA's agreement to be more transparent, as well as a promise from Kinkisharyo to "explore ways to expand opportunities for disadvantaged L.A. County workers," possibly including more training programs.

But the episode represents another black eye for CEQA and those who rely on it to protect against developments that damage the environment and clog their communities. That's because the willingness of Kinkisharyo's opponents to use the threat of CEQA lawsuits to gain leverage in labor negotiations only adds fuel to the drive by business groups to defang the act.

In the coming year, lawmakers will be pressured again to amend the law to make it harder for groups with ulterior motives -- be they labor unions or business rivals -- to stymie projects. The problem is that it's hard to stop that sort of behavior without also preventing CEQA from being used as intended. Even someone with a pernicious motive can use CEQA to point out real problems in a project.

That's why CEQA reformers seek either to exempt more projects from the law's purview or speed CEQA challenges through the courts. Either way, the changes affect legitimate environmental complaints as well as pretextural ones.

Granted, any regulation that the public can enforce through the courts has the potential for being used as a bargaining chip. Still, it's CEQA that businesses and investors point to when they accuse California of having a hostile climate for business and investors. And Kinkisharyo's experience will only pour more fuel on that fire.

Follow Healey's intermittent Twitter feed: @jcahealey

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