Plan to disburse climate change funds challenged by Bay Area officials

More than half the state's pollution funds for poor communities would go to Los Angeles County

Bay Area public officials are challenging a state plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to fight climate change by cleaning the air in some of California's poorest and most polluted communities, most of which are in Southern California.

The officials say the state's method of determining which communities are helped is flawed because it would exclude some of their region's most at-risk residents.

The funds come from the state's cap-and-trade program, which began in 2012 and requires companies to buy carbon pollution permits at auctions. State law requires at least 25% of the proceeds to go to greenhouse gas-cutting projects that benefit disadvantaged communities. Another 25% is set aside for the high-speed rail project between Los Angeles and San Francisco and the rest can be spent to reduce carbon emissions across the state.

To pinpoint the neediest communities, the California Environmental Protection Agency spent years and about $1.5 million developing a screening tool that uses 19 measures of environmental exposure, health risk and socioeconomic status.

Using that analysis, more than half the funds would go to Los Angeles County communities and most of the rest to other areas of Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley. Less than 5% would go to the Bay Area.

Projects, to be chosen and administered by about a dozen state agencies, could include tree plantings in urban neighborhoods, financial assistance for low-income residents to install solar panels and more efficient appliances and rebates for zero-emissions cars, trucks and buses aimed at communities near heavy traffic. The funds could also pay for expanded rail or bus service and affordable housing near transit hubs.

In a letter to Cal/EPA last month, 20 state legislators from the Bay Area said the state's analysis "overlooks a large number of communities that, by any measure, are some of the most polluted and disadvantaged in the state."

Bay Area leaders say they do not want the state's analysis abandoned. Instead, they are calling for modifications to include more of the region's most vulnerable census tracts near refineries, transportation corridors and ports.

"If not, you would have neighborhoods in the direct wind flow of the Chevron refinery [in Richmond] that would not have a priority in terms of cap-and-trade funds," said Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley).

In Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley, public officials, community activists and environmental justice groups say their regions bear more severe effects and are urging the state to stick to its formula.

Abandoning objective data as a guide, they say, would squander an unprecedented opportunity to address environmental inequality by concentrating spending where it is needed the most.

"This could be the biggest investment these communities see in a long time," said Colleen Callahan, who is tracking the plans as deputy director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation. "So it's critical that the process be systematic, transparent and data-driven."

The total amount of cap-and-trade funds for this year is budgeted at $832 million, with the amount destined to grow in the future as the program expands. State officials plan to set aside $272 million, or 32% of the total, for neediest communities this year.

The screening tool, known as CalEnviroScreen, evaluates more than 8,000 census tracts, areas that average a few thousand residents and closely correspond to neighborhood boundaries, to identify which are most at-risk from pollution.

The tracts are ranked according to environmental, health and social data that include levels of air and water pollution, pesticide use, proximity to waste facilities and cleanup sites and rates of asthma, low-birth-weight infants, poverty and unemployment.

"This is a chance to correct mistakes of the past and renew and improve our quality of life," said Leonardo Vilchis, who heads the Boyle Heights-based community group Union de Vecinos and lives in one of the top 5% worst-scoring census tracts in the state. "It should be concentrated in the areas where there's a history of higher pollution, where there's higher risk to people's lives."

Cal/EPA is considering several alternative formulas, including one suggested by Bay Area air quality regulators, but believes "CalEnviroScreen itself is well suited to the task … and is the result of a years-long public process," Cal/EPA spokesman Alex Barnum said.

The agency is reviewing comments on the alternatives and expects to make a decision by the end of this month.

The state's analysis has some shortcomings but has largely drawn praise from researchers and environmental justice groups, said Manuel Pastor, a sociology professor who directs USC's Program for Environmental and Regional Equity and who developed a precursor to CalEnviroScreen.

"The good news is there's now a method and a flow of money that is aimed at addressing the most environmentally exposed and disadvantaged communities and dealing with climate change at the same time," Pastor said. "This is a state that's no longer debating that there is a pattern of environmental disparities, but actually marshaling resources to try to address it."

The cap-and-trade program is central to California's plans to slash greenhouse gas emissions under its landmark 2006 global warming law, AB 32. It sets a statewide limit on the heat-trapping gases causing climate change and requires major emitters of carbon dioxide, including refineries, power plants and manufacturing facilities, to obtain pollution permits, called allowances, that can be purchased and traded in a highly regulated carbon market.

As the cap declines over time, allowances should become more scarce and valuable, creating an incentive for businesses to cut their emissions, operate more efficiently or buy allowances from other companies.

Though the state does not make official projections, economists say California's cap-and-trade auctions could bring in several billion dollars a year once the program expands as scheduled next year to include distributors of gasoline, diesel and natural gas for transportation and heating.

tony.barboza@latimes.com

Twitter: @tonybarboza

Times staff writers Thomas Suh Lauder, Sandra Poindexter and Doug Smith contributed to this report.

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