The California Environmental Quality Act has protected public health and the environment again and again for more than 42 years.
CEQA works by requiring public agencies to consider the effects of projects on the environment. If a project may have a significant effect on the environment, an environmental impact report is prepared. Citizens may comment on it. Agencies are required to avoid or reduce significant effects to the extent feasible. Alternatives to the project must be considered. The end result of this process is typically a decision by the public agency to approve a project subject to measures to protect public health and the environment.
CEQA is not enforced by a government bureaucracy; instead, it is enforced by citizens through the courts. Litigation, though important, is comparatively rare, less than 0.02 percent of total civil litigation per year.
Under this process, CEQA prevented offshore oil drilling. It led to the preservation of the Santa Monica Mountains. It kept sewage out of vital bodies of water such as San Francisco Bay and Newport Bay. When developers proposed an open-air human sewage treatment facility near the town of Hinkley, CEQA forced them to consider using an enclosed facility. When the Port of Oakland considered an airport expansion, CEQA forced it to address toxic air contamination threatening nearby residents.
It was a CEQA lawsuit that began electrification of industrial equipment at the Port of Los Angeles to keep toxic pollution away from neighborhoods. The law has protected workers and residents from exposure to highly toxic and explosive anhydrous ammonia by requiring the use of alternative materials in industrial processes. CEQA has required freeways to make room for transit. It has required the Department of Food and Agriculture to consider the effects on schools, hospitals, nursing homes and parks before it authorized spraying of pesticides. Where there is a concentration of pollution sources, as in poor neighborhoods, CEQA requires consideration of the cumulative impacts of pollution.
Because CEQA is powerful and effective, it has been under attack for most of its life. Currently, there are calls for modernizing or updating the law. However, CEQA has been updated continuously. Though the law was first passed in 1970, 334 sections have been added, amended or repealed since 1990; 170 sections since 2002; and 83 sections since 2008.
Some critics say that CEQA impedes California's progress toward renewable energy. That is not the case. Despite a few local legal challenges to these projects, the president of the California Public Utilities Commission recently confirmed that California is well on the road to meeting its standard of having 33 percent of electricity generated by renewable energy by 2020.
Like all statutes enforced by citizen lawsuits, including the civil rights acts, or the Americans With Disabilities Act, there are always individual cases that can be criticized. However, it is one thing to spin an anecdote. It is another to offer proposals that are specific, thoughtful and carefully crafted. Those proposals will be evaluated by their ability to improve the protection of public health and the environment. Proposals to weaken CEQA in the guise of modernization should be resisted.
No one can refute the overall record of this statute. Because of CEQA, California's air is cleaner; our water is safer to drink; our workplaces are healthier; and our landscapes are protected. Making our state laws work better is something we should all strive for, but no one should support proposals that would undermine a statute that has protected the health and environment of Californians for 42 years.