California’s Focus on Environmental Justice Creates Model for Other States

Richmond, CA refinery fire in 2012. Image: Wikimedia Commons

by Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

Since 2018, Californians have benefited from a new addition to the state government: the Bureau of Environmental Justice. Launched by Attorney General Xavier Becerra, the bureau is focused on protecting communities disproportionately harmed by pollution and contamination. The environmental justice bureau is the first of its kind, with six full-time attorneys working to hold industry accountable, pushing back on federal environmental rollbacks, and protecting residents from toxins. 

  • They’ve joined forces with community groups to take on polluters, including a proposed cement plant and shopping terminal in Vallejo.
  • And it’s creating a model for other states to address long-running inequalities that have harmed communities of color and low-income neighborhoods for decades. 

Why this Matters: Everyone should be able to breathe fresh air, drink clean water, and move through their day in a healthy environment. However, that’s not the case in the US, where systemic racism means that communities of color are more likely to live near a source of pollution, breathe polluted air, and face the resulting health issues like asthma. By acknowledging that reality and actively working to correct it, California’s Bureau of Environmental Justice is changing the precedent for industrial development and backing up advocacy work residents have been focused on for years. It also couldn’t be more timely, with climate change exacerbating inequalities that already exist. 

Low-income, minority communities should not always be the first and worst hit by pollution and environmental degradation, simply because they don’t have the resources to fend for themselves,” Becerra told Grist. “And in many respects I think when environmental justice communities talk about our environmental justice bureau, what they’re simply saying is we’re helping level the playing field.”

The Future of Environmental Justice in Government: California’s bureau has already inspired other state attorneys general to create their own similar initiatives:

And at the federal level, Becerra is nominated to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, an opportunity to bring environmental justice to the national approach to public health. 


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