California Attorney General Rob Bonta made a whirlwind visit to Fresno on Aug. 9 to hear from residents living in communities that are environmentally and economically stressed. What he heard were concerns over a litany of problems such as air pollution, industrial development, deficient infrastructure and public officials who are unresponsive to community needs.
Soon after Bonta became the state’s attorney general, he expanded the Environmental Justice Bureau. Since then, he has been using the tools of that office to investigate problems around the state such as warehouse development in the Inland Empire, Walmart failing to safely dispose of hazardous chemicals and holding farmers accountable for the harm caused by pesticide drift.
Bonta met with residents of Calwa, a small unincorporated community south of Fresno. It’s a place feeling the full impact of environmental justice distresses. He sat with a circle of a couple of dozen people at the Friends of Calwa office, listening to their presentations and expressing his support.
“Your fight is my fight. We care deeply about environmental justice, making sure that every person in every community—regardless of your zip code, your income, your race, your ethnicity—has access to clean water and clean air and a healthy and safe environment.
“And there are frontline communities that are being hurt the worst, that are overburdened and under-resourced.” Bonta vowed to fight for those communities as attorney general.
The discussion circle of mainly Latinas and other women of color included longtime Calwa residents. They told the attorney general in English and Spanish about the range of problems they have to endure in their everyday lives because of where they live.
Laura Moreno is Friends of Calwa’s leader and a lifelong resident. She expressed concerns that reflected the anxieties faced by many residents here.
“Calwa has struggled with road maintenance and asthma because of industry. We have bad air. I have asthma, my father has asthma…and I think that it is mostly because of industry. The county, the city needs to come in and actually see what our community needs.
“Industry is not what Calwa needs. They need to take more interest in what our community needs. We need transportation. We want green space. We want affordable housing.
“There’s a lot of things. They haven’t even come to find out what our community needs. They haven’t done any outreach to us.”
Likewise, Fresno County has not conducted outreach to small towns and unincorporated villages regarding the Measure C reauthorization campaign. That controversial and ongoing transportation tax will be on the ballot in the Nov. 8 election. Neither has the County included in Measure C the kind of infrastructure that people in communities like Calwa say they need.
Most of the issues that Calwa residents brought up were underscored by Bonta earlier this year when he criticized Fresno County’s General Plan. In a letter to County officials, he outlined the General Plan’s numerous violations of the state’s environmental laws and even civil rights violations.
He warned officials that targeting south Fresno neighborhoods such as Calwa and Malaga for industrial development likely violates housing discrimination laws. Those regulations prohibit land-use practices resulting in pollution that could adversely impact current residents. Such effects are considered a form of discrimination.
Bonta also took the County to task for its failure to take residents’ concerns into account when crafting the General Plan.
In addition to his warning letter regarding the County’s General Plan, Bonta asked that the County hold off on putting Measure C on the ballot until a more balanced transportation plan could be crafted. Fresno County supervisors voted to put it on the ballot anyway, as did the Fresno City Council.
California’s top law enforcement official says that he’s willing to use the power of his office on behalf of people like those in the room, emphasizing that people who live in these targeted communities have his full backing, “You are all my constituents. I care about all of that and will fight for all of you.
“And part of this specific circle, this moment, hearing your story, your lived experiences, your testimonials, that has always been for me, as an elected leader, the most powerful, informative, motivational thing.”
When people tell him they face injustice, Bonta says that is what “really inspires me to act.”
Bonta was asked how cities can have robust economic development and still provide for clean, safe neighborhoods with the amenities that many other places in Fresno take for granted. He replied that decision makers have accepted the wrong paradigm of development for too long. He insists it doesn’t need to be that way.
“Look what we did in Fontana. We got involved in a lawsuit when a warehouse was proposed, and it was being developed right by sensitive receptors by schools and students and people.
“And we got involved in a way that allowed for there to be buffer zones and electrification and uplifting and protection of the communities while a warehouse was still built.
“And so that was, I believe, nation leading. It was precedent-setting and provides a good blueprint for the answer to your question—how do you do both.”
Bonta pointed out that county planning agencies can grow their economies and uplift residents at the same time and that the two goals are not mutually exclusive as shown in Fontana. And he promised that with his Environmental Justice Bureau, he plans to show that it can work in other places as well.