Environmental Justice Does Not Mean What They Think It Means
War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. High speed rail is environmentally unjust?
That last claim, equally as absurd as the other three given to us by George Orwell, is the latest attempt by high speed rail critics to undermine the project by claiming that it violates the principles of environmental justice:
But the choice to run through disadvantaged rural areas and impact farms, homes and business in towns such as Corcoran violates environmental justice protections in the National Environmental Policy Act, critics said Tuesday. A route along Interstate 5, going through undeveloped land, would avoid such impacts, they argued….
Late notification of impacted parties is an issue, said Michael LaSalle, a retired attorney who has property within the proposed alignment west of Hanford.
Many property owners didn’t attend earlier meetings because they didn’t know they were affected, he said.
“We do believe the project has violated the environmental justice provisions of NEPA,” LaSalle said.
Just because these farmers failed to pay attention in 2005 doesn’t mean that the principles of environmental justice have been denied. Environmental justice is not the same thing as NIMBYism, which is what the Kings County HSR opponents are claiming. Nor is it about protecting the ability of privileged white people from having to own up to their responsibilities to help provide a cleaner environment.
In fact, the true principles of environmental justice make it clear that high speed rail, on the alignment the California High Speed Rail Authority is proposing, meets the standard of an environmentally just routing, and that the Interstate 5 alignment would be unjust. Here’s how the Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice:
Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across this Nation. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.
Here’s how HSR is just. Right now, the Central Valley has severe public health problems stemming from pollution. Asthma rates in Fresno are three times the national average, with Fresno being second most polluted city in the country. Asthma and other pollution-related impacts hit people of color and the poor much harder than people with more money and whiter skin. Studies indicate that automobiles and agriculture are among the leading causes of the pollution that triggers asthma. On that basis alone it’s ironic for farmers to claim that they are the ones who need environmental justice.
But the automobile pollution may be the bigger factor. Motor vehicles are responsible for 57% of the air pollution in the Central Valley. With heavy automobile traffic on Highway 99 and on Interstate 5 contributing to the problem, anything that reduces automobile trips in the Valley would shoot right to the top of the list of environmentally just actions.
High speed rail on the current corridor would help achieve more pollution reduction than following the I-5 corridor. If I-5 is used, there would be no HSR stops in Merced or Fresno or Bakersfield. 2 million people at least would be bypassed, denied the choice to take clean electric trains that don’t spew pollutants into the air the way automobiles do. But by placing stops in those cities, carbon emissions and other pollutants would be reduced much more than if the trains bypassed the Valley cities. And by serving those cities, people of color and the poor would potentially face less asthma risk. That is environmental justice in a nutshell.
And that is why a bunch of white farmers can’t claim that environmental justice principles mean the tracks should be moved out of their backyards. Their claims show they have no real understanding of what environmental justice actually is and instead show their stunning level of privilege that they would co-opt a term and a concept intended to empower those who are suffering to instead pursue transportation policies that favor those with privilege and further harm those who lack it.
For anti-HSR forces to claim their cause is one of environmental justice is deeply offensive and shows just how low they will stoop to try and kill a project that is essential to helping clean up pollution and improve the lives of Californians who are suffering the most from the failed transportation policies of the 20th century.