Sound Protection Equals Strong Growth : Environment: The state's law should not be made a scapegoat for economic troubles.

Former state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp now practices in Los Angeles with the law firm of Dewey and Ballantine.

In 1970, the Legislature passed the California Environmental Quality Act, landmark legislation aimed at protecting the state's natural resources. Twenty-three years later, CEQA, the backbone of California's environmental-protection laws, faces abandonment.

In its simplest terms, CEQA gives the public and its representatives the right to information regarding proposed building and development. It requires that adverse impacts of a project be documented and disclosed to the public in the form of an environmental impact report.

CEQA also gives the public the right to comment on the impact report's findings and mandates that project sponsors respond to public concerns. And if negative effects are discovered through this process, the law says, feasible mitigation must be put into effect before approval of a project.

Some examples of how CEQA works:

* Deters environmentally damaging projects. Illustration: An order to prepare an impact report caused a company to drop its proposed construction of a hazardous-waste incinerator in Vernon.

* Informs decision-makers. Illustration: After reading in the impact report of adverse air effects of the proposed Angeles oil pipeline, Mayor Tom Bradley opposed the project and it was dropped.

* Informs the public. Illustration: A proposed golf course in Malibu would have destroyed coastal habitat and resulted in the drainage of herbicides and pesticides into public beach areas. There was a public outcry, and the project was canceled.

These successes aside, much of the good that CEQA does is found in projects that receive far less press notice, projects that are better designed and protective of the environment because CEQA requires proponents and designers to address environmental impacts as a matter of course.

Because of CEQA's successes, it is opposed by business interests and developers who would like a free hand to build whatever they want. They are blaming the environmental and regulatory climate for California's sluggish economy. And CEQA has become a convenient scapegoat.

Two bills--one by state Sen. Ralph C. Dills and the other by Sen. William R. Leonard Jr.--that would create broad exemptions from the law are working their way through the Legislature.

Under the Dills bill, modernization and expansion of a facility according to an environmental regulation could result in an exemption of the project, even though the expansion might cause more environmental damage than it supposedly cures. For example, a modification of an industrial facility that would result in a net reduction of emissions would be exempt from CEQA, even if it increased traffic or destroyed habitat and natural and scenic values.

The Leonard bill would prevent local agencies from considering a project's adverse environmental impact if the state had already considered those effects, thereby foreclosing discussion or adoption of compensating measures at the local level, even though the state information might be years out of date. The bill's premise is that CEQA is a hindrance to economic growth.

The truth, however, is that during a period of growth and expansion, the law has struck a fair and delicate balance between economic activity and environmental protection. Less than 5% of all proposals ever require an environmental impact report. The act forces more thoughtful development. That's not to say it's perfect. There's a consensus that it needs updating and streamlining.

But the California Environmental Quality Act should not be made the scapegoat for our state's economic problems.

California's economy is being devastated by defense budget cuts and military-base closures, the global economic slowdown, recessions in Japan and Europe, our social problems and reduction in foreign tourism.

Environmental protection can support growth. The June-July economic business outlook report from the Bank of America concluded that states with strong environmental protection have had stronger economic growth than those without it.

California's Environmental Quality Act has a central role in the development of good environmental regulation, because it requires decision-makers to look at projects carefully and compel offsetting alternatives to adverse effects. The hoped-for result is better environmental protection, out of which, the Bank of America report concludes, "millions of jobs can be created in environmental industries, resource management can be improved and strong economic growth can be sustained."

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