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News: Healthy Businesses, Sick People

Proposed environmental justice ordinance has support but faces uphill battle

By Margo Pierce · May 7th, 2008 · News
  City Councilman David Crowley (left) and his legislative aide, Rocky Merz, have been working on a citywide environmental justice ordinance for almost three years.
Joe Lamb

City Councilman David Crowley (left) and his legislative aide, Rocky Merz, have been working on a citywide environmental justice ordinance for almost three years.

Environmental justice is a concept most people agree with: Communities heavily polluted with toxins and other garbage that makes residents sick shouldn't have to host additional polluting businesses. At the very least, companies moving into those communities ought to be required to follow environmental laws that don't add to the disproportionate burden (see "Equal Environmental Rights," issue of April 18, 2007).

Nobody wants say aloud that poor people deserve to live in a polluted area because they're too lazy to move to a healthier place. Those beating the drum for more jobs to help the economy don't want to go on the record saying that all companies need to dump their garbage someplace, so why not a place that's already filthy.

The inconvenient truth that low-income housing often isn't available in cleaner neighborhoods and that people who live in the cleaner places often don't want poor people moving in next to them -- combined with every other argument against environmental justice -- results in obstacles to change.

It's taken Cincinnati Vice Mayor David Crowley almost three years to craft legislation that attempts to address these prevailing attitudes. City Council's Health, Environment and Education committee met April 29 to review the latest draft of his Environmental Justice (EJ) Ordinance.

The ordinance has the support of five council members -- Laketa Cole, John Cranley, Roxanne Qualls, Cecil Thomas and Crowley -- but Crowley told the committee he wants council and the community to have time to ask questions and thus wouldn't press for a vote right away.

Attorney David Altman, co-chair of Crowley's environmental justice working group, told committee members that the ordinance isn't designed to stop development projects in the city of Cincinnati.

"It requires people proposing certain categories of projects to say what they're going to do about their emission that might impact the community," Altman said. "New projects or significant expansion occurring within a one-mile radius of an EJ community are subject to an EJ review. If the project does not meet the EJ standard, the city cannot grant a zone change, a permit or a license for the project."

Specific categories of businesses and construction will be exempt from the environmental justice review, Altman said, including office buildings, residential developments and "most commercial" projects. Reviews will be conducted only in neighborhoods defined as "environmental justice communities" and a one-mile radius around them.

"I hasten to point out that big parts of Hyde Park and Mount Washington are not included," Altman said, "and it was the considered opinion of all the members of the committee that they did not need this protection. Nor have we had any push back from Hyde Park and the areas of Mount Washington saying that they demand this protection, too. There isn't a question whether environmental justice, in theory, should apply to all, but we're trying to deal first with the people who need the help the most."

Altman explained that an EJ review would be conducted by a qualified professional hired by the city manager, and either the community or the developer could appeal the review decision to a seven-member environmental justice board of appeals. City council would be able to overrule the board of appeals with six votes.

Representatives of the Sierra Club, Communities United for Action, NAACP, Environmental Community Organization and other groups and individuals spoke in favor of the ordinance during the public comment period on April 29. Some were concerned about the lack of EJ reviews for existing companies that pollute, and some were wary about how enforcement would be handled for companies that violate the ordinance.

The Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber of Commerce raised the same enforcement concerns, and more, in a letter to Crowley dated April 28. In the letter J. Rita McNeil, vice president of government affairs, questioned language in the ordinance saying EJ reviews can eventually "impose such conditions on the applicant that are determined to be in the public interest and necessary to mitigate any harmful effects from the potential project."

"It imposes judgment by unknown an official, acting in an unknown capacity, over private actions," McNeil wrote. "This section raises the prospect of an entirely new legal process -- surely a move that needs its own in-depth evaluation and public discussion. This section alone is reason enough to table this ordinance. " (Emphasis was in the original letter.)

Councilman Jeff Berding said he supports the need to protect the health of citizens and the community and asked if preparations had been made to help businesses avoid an EJ review.

"I'm wondering if anyone has provided a map that would show in the areas that are not environmental justice communities where there's zoning that will allow some of the uses that are addressed in this ordinance," Berding asked Altman. "If we were to say as a policy, 'We don't want more of certain uses in these communities,' is there sufficient zoning in other parts of the community that would allow such uses?"

Altman took issue with Berding's suggestion that certain neighborhoods would be off-limits for some business types.

"Nobody is saying we don't want uses in any part of the city," Altman replied. "That is not what the ordinance does. If you have a narrow category of use, you have to address whether there is a cumulative adverse impact on the environment. There's plenty of room in the city for facilities that are willing to address that question and show what their operation does and that they're not adding to the already great burden."

Altman said there's a direct correlation between illness in certain Cincinnati neighborhoods and the burden of pollutants these communities bear, unlike Hyde Park or parts of Mount Washington.

"The data is overwhelming," he said. "Stacked against that we have the undocumented, anecdotal, theoretical possibility that some polluter might not be able to locate their business in an area if they have to say what they're doing."

Crowley declined to be interviewed about his ordinance because he's scheduled a meeting with Chamber officials and commenting publicly would be "premature," according to a staffer. ©



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