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Like the Eastside Prison, Impact Report Is Flawed

<i> Los Angeles City Councilwoman Gloria Molina formerly represented the proposed prison site area when she was a member of the state Assembly. State Assemblywoman Lucille Roybal-Allard currently represents the area</i>

When testifying at last July’s hearing to consider the environmental-impact report on the proposed downtown prison, a businessman commented that if one of his employees produced a report of the same abysmal quality, he would throw it back at him.

A three-member panel charged with the task of evaluating the environmental-impact report will begin to hear testimony at another hearing today. If the certification panel does its job and adheres to the intent of the California Environmental Quality Act, it will throw the report back to state Department of Corrections officials and tell them to do it right next time. If the governor and the Legislature do their jobs, they will tell the Department of Corrections not to bother with another report and abandon plans for yet another prison near Los Angeles’ Eastside.

Environmental review of the proposed prison, located southeast of Civic Center, was seriously flawed before it even started. An environmental-impact report should evaluate impacts from a project, identify how to eliminate the negative ones and propose alternatives with less drastic environmental consequences. Thus, the impact report should provide an environmental safety net to protect residents from harmful effects.

The first two gaping holes in the safety net for the environment and Eastside residents were carved by the Legislature with the governor’s hand firmly on the knife.

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First, the governor and Legislature eliminated the legal mandate to examine alternative sites. How can the suitability of one location for a prison be fairly judged if it cannot be compared to others?

In a second assault on the review process, the Legislature fashioned another unfair environmental loophole solely for the proposed downtown prison. This allowed the state to purchase the downtown land before the prison plan was reviewed for environmental effects. But a different standard was applied for the other prison authorized by the Legislature. The land for that proposed prison, located in Lancaster, would not be purchased until after environmental studies are completed.

This difference represents a total perversion of environmental review. Either the state so flagrantly disregarded the rights of Eastside residents that it was willing to subject them to another jail despite the environmental consequences, or the state threw fiscal responsibility out the window by spending approximately $30 million on a downtown site it may never use. To make matters worse, the city attorney estimates that it would cost approximately $60 million more to locate a prison downtown than at a comparable rural site.

The final unweaving of the environmental safety net occurred in the environmental-impact report itself. Instead of fairly addressing the concerns raised by residents, the report serves to rationalize the department’s predetermined decision to build a prison on the Eastside. It relies upon speculation, irrelevant studies and unconvincing analysis to defend the plan for the first California prison ever located in the middle of a densely populated urban environment.

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For years, residents opposed this prison because they are concerned about the safety of their children, the future of their families and the character of their community. It seems unfathomable that an environmental-impact report could conclude that placement of a prison in a community that already houses 75% of the inmates in Los Angeles County would not affect the environment. Merlin the Magician could not perform this sleight of hand.

Just consider crime and public safety. The environmental-impact report, in effect, says, “Don’t worry--crime won’t increase.” This speculative conclusion is derived from studies of rural prisons that have perimeter security and remote locations irrelevant to the discussion of a downtown site. And the rural sites don’t suffer from the severe urban gang and crime problems that the downtown location has. Further, the report irresponsibly dismissed the Los Angeles Police Department’s concern that gang activity may increase in communities surrounding the prison.

But perhaps the most blatantly callous conclusion contained in the report is the suggestion that if an escape occurs and the escapee commits another crime, this should not be interpreted as having a significant impact on the environment. Has the Department of Corrections considered the impact it will have on the victim? The victim’s family? The community?

The 870,000 residents who live within five miles of the proposed prison deserve enforcement of the laws enacted to safeguard their environment. The parents of the 45,000 children who attend the 36 schools located within three miles of the planned lockup deserve the same environmental protections parents receive in more affluent communities. How can the Department of Corrections’ environmental-impact report find no cause for concern regarding the abundance of schools surrounding the prison site? The Department of Corrections has produced a report better termed an Environmental Indifference Report.

Fortunately, this pattern can stop. The certification panel can alter the course by rejecting the report. Then it’s up to the Department of Corrections to pull the plug on this wasteful spending of public funds, search for a more appropriate prison site, and get on with the crucial prison expansion program.


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