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Will There Be Jobs in the Clean Air? : Environmental Plans Must Consider Effect on Minorities

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A potentially destructive and unnecessary conflict is building between elements of the environmental movement and the ethnic poor of Los Angeles. If it continues, the governance of our diverse population will become even more difficult. We must find the means to achieve our environmental goals without the sacrifice of jobs that offer low-income workers a way out of the cycle of poverty.

It is the responsibility of agencies like the Air Quality Management District, despite their single-purpose environmental mission, to anticipate the unintended social and economic consequences of their decisions and work with other private and public agencies to mitigate those effects. It is also the responsibility of the press to hold our public agencies and elected officials accountable for making properly balanced, rather than single-purpose decisions, about the environment, land use, transportation and economic development.

We all want clean air and a better environment. But our environmental policies must be considered along with other regional needs. While it is obvious that the Los Angeles Basin has a fragile environmental setting, it is also true that we have an equally fragile economic and social structure. Racial isolation of the very poor and the disparity in wealth are growing in the region, and are worse today than at the time of the Watts riots.

According Ed Blakely, a UC Berkeley professor, the minority poor are primarily employed in manufacturing and low-level occupations. They are grossly under-represented in many of the professions. Thus, manufacturing jobs are an important link in the chain of upward mobility for millions in the region’s work force just as those jobs are linked to sources of pollution that are the target of the single-purpose regulator. By focusing exclusive attention on environmental concerns we may accelerate income polarization and dangerous social decay.

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It would seem both fair and prudent to require the AQMD to take a serious look at the costs of air-quality plans and to mitigate their harmful effects, rather than rely on the rhetoric of those whose single objective is to adopt it. The only hearing in Central, East, or South Los Angeles on the plan, which among other drastic measures, might eliminate the use of solvents central to the operation of the furniture industry (with its 30,000 mostly Latino jobs), was not attended by a single member of the AQMD board. Moreover, the plan does not analyze the short-term displacement of existing jobs as a result of this measure nor does it offer suggestions for how to lessen the pain of these dislocations. Toward this end there should be ethnic representation on the Air Quality Management District board.

All of us have a stake in the future of our region, for which our fragile environment presents an urgent challenge. But, it is imperative that we be more responsible and balanced than we have been in debating major policy decisions. It is the responsibility of cities, counties and the Southern California Assn. of Governments, when acting on this plan, to consider not only meeting air-quality objectives but also to assess the effects on people and jobs.

The minority community feels increasingly excluded from the environmental agenda. Given current and projected demographics we can assume that environmentalists will continue to assert formidable political power for the next decade. At the same time, ethnic groups will begin to collectively assert political strength commensurate with their population numbers. There is a danger of confrontation that could undermine the community of trust upon which effective governance depends.

By aggressively advocating their short-term goals, environmentalists may ultimately produce a powerful coalition between certain business interests and an angry group of voting minorities who perceive that their economic needs and hopes have been ignored. We must make sure that economic development does not become the civil-rights battle of the future.

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