Unions, environmentalists join to uphold California's landmark environmental law

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Labor, environmental groups and some Democratic state legislators have formed a new coalition to uphold the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, against business-backed attempts to weaken the state's landmark 1970 environmental safety law on grounds it slows economic development.

At a March 12 press conference on the steps of the state Capitol in Sacramento, the Common Ground coalition released a report showing that in four decades since the law's passage, key economic indicators including per capita GDP, manufacturing output and construction activity have grown as fast or faster than the same indicators in the other 49 states.

At the press conference, California Labor Federation executive secretary-treasurer Art Pulaski told a crowd of union and environmental activists that the California labor movement "rejects any effort to weaken this landmark law."

Robbie Hunter, president of the state's Building and Construction Council, said California's "working families have had enough of big businesses trying to deregulate the laws that protect them." Hunter added that CEQA "is working to give California communities a voice in development and it's working to keep our members safe on the job site."

State Senator Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa said the law's history shows that "we can have the nation's leading environmental and community protection laws and still realize growth and profits that equally benefit our bottom line."

Sarah Rose, who heads the California League of Conservation Voters, emphasized that "whether it be where to locate an incinerator or a power plant, CEQA gives every Californian a right to weigh in. Those that would like to see California's environmental laws deregulated seem to want to silence that voice."

CEQA was passed by the state legislature and signed into law by then-governor Ronald Reagan shortly after passage of the National Environmental Policy Act. The California law requires state and local agencies to ensure that environmental impacts of proposed projects are analyzed and made public, and to take all reasonable measures to ease those impacts.

Though the guidelines originally affected only public projects, state Supreme Court decisions and later changes in the law's wording have broadened its application to cover almost all projects in the state, including those by private businesses and individuals.

The report, "The Economic and Environmental Impact of the California Environmental Quality Act," was prepared by University of Utah professor Peter Philips. It studied the law's impact on phasing out coal-fired power generation, greening the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and discouraging water-intensive wet-cooled power plants in the state's interior.

The study was partially funded by a grant from the California Construction Industry Labor Management Cooperation Trust.

It points out that California shifted to less-polluting natural gas and to renewable and non-traditional power sources to generate electricity sooner and more broadly than the rest of the country.

Opponents of the law say it results in lawsuits limiting growth in California. But a recent Natural Resources Defense Council study points out that lawsuits under CEQA affect only about 1 percent of projects subject to the law, and make up only a tiny fraction of civil cases in the state.

The current effort to weaken CEQA, involving the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, surfaced last summer.

Unlike most other legislative issues, this one doesn't divide along strict party lines. The former head of the Senate Environmental Quality - a Democrat - proposed legislation the unions and environmental organizations said would make CEQA ineffective, and 30 legislators successfully urged putting the issue off until the new legislative session. That proposal is now being reintroduced by a Republican senator. Democratic Governor Jerry Brown favors easing CEQA's requirements.

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