TL;DR—Certain neighborhoods in California and across the United States have faced disproportionate exposure to air pollution and other environmental harms, often over the course of decades. Under California’s AB 617 legislation, these communities, sometimes termed “environmental justice communities”, may apply for funding to establish community-level air quality monitoring networks. Gathering air quality data, often in places with little existing monitoring infrastructure, helps garner support for public awareness and policy change. Here, we explore issues of environmental justice in San Bernardino, Richmond, San Francisco, and Sacramento, California and look at how air sensor networks funded by AB 617 have empowered them to take action on air pollution.

To apply for Community Air Grant funding for an air quality monitoring network in a disadvantaged community under AB 617 legislation, view the California Air Resources Board resources. Applications can be submitted for a 3-month period beginning July 2, 2021.

Environmental justice in California

As air quality monitoring programs become more adapted to the needs and nuances of specific communities, environmental justice plays a crucial role in developing the most impactful air quality monitoring infrastructure. Under California state law, environmental justice is defined as “the fair treatment of people of all races, cultures, and incomes with respect to the development, adoption, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies”. Environmental justice (EJ) means recognizing the disparities between different communities, even those within the same city or region, because of present and/or historical conditions which affect their community health and access to resources.

California air quality monitoring legislation defines environmental justice communities to distinguish regions that have been subject to disproportionate impacts of pollution and other environmental conditions. These communities tend to lack public investment—often due to historical conditions like redlining and other manifestations of environmental and systemic racism

Residents in environmental justice communities usually experience pollution from a variety of sources. These neighborhoods may be surrounded by freeways, refineries, or industrial facilities and loften lack clean drinking water, sidewalks, and green spaces. Areas that are overburdened by pollution are often also predominantly minority or low-income communities, meaning that your race or income status can often define your pollution exposure.

[P]ollution and socioeconomic vulnerabilities disproportionately burden people of color. According to [the California Environmental Health Screening Tool: CalEnviroScreen Version 2.0], 89% of people living in the top 10% most overburdened census tracts are people of color. This is the legacy of years of discriminatory redlining in communities of color and systemic racism in industrial development.”

— California Environmental Justice Alliance

The recognition of environmental justice communities has become a larger part of California’s environmental policy, including at the county and city levels. Over 140 cities and counties in the state plan to include addressing pollution in environmental justice communities as part of their policy over the course of 2020 to 2022. 

The first of its kind, the 2018 California law SB-1000 requires local governments to include an environmental justice assessment if they update two or more aspects of their general plans, though this bill does not include regulation to enforce this requirement.

Local governments must identify disadvantaged communities within their borders and identify ways to reduce health risks, promote civil engagement, and prioritize improvements that address the needs of such communities, under the law.”

— Bloomberg Law, describing SB-1000

Environmental justice in Bloomington, California

Examining specific communities which face intersecting environmental and economic hardships reveals the clear need for environmental justice as part of environmental policy.

The town of Bloomington is a small, rural, predominantly Hispanic community located in the San Bernardino region of southern California which experiences high levels of air pollution. Particulate matter (PM) pollution from diesel emissions associated with nearby warehouses and logistics-related transportation creates poor conditions for residents here, many of which suffer from asthma and certain cancers. These residents are already burdened by other issues, such as poverty—every census tract in Bloomington is considered low-income, and the area is considered a disadvantaged community under SB 535. This bill allocates a quarter of the funds from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund to go directly to disadvantaged communities, as identified by CalEPA.

Bloomington is one of several disadvantaged communities in California, as classified under SB 535. The image above displays these communities in red, dispersed throughout the state, updated as of June 2018. This includes areas scoring in the top 25% of CalEnviroScreen‘s criteria for disadvantaged communities along with areas of high air pollution and low population.
(Image source: CalEnviroScreen 3.0)

Despite air quality improvements for California as a whole, Bloomington’s air quality has decreased over the course of 2008 to 2018, echoing a nationwide trend of increasing disparities in air pollution exposure by race. Bloomington reflects the greater trends of these disadvantaged communities in which pollution, especially that coming from increased levels of particulate matter, disproportionately impacts people of color and low-income communities.

In Bloomington’s case, the town has suffered from the impacts of the Inland Empire warehouse boom. With widespread increases in e-commerce, warehouses are sited increasingly close to residential areas, with some residential land even being rezoned into industrial areas to accommodate these demands. In Bloomington, homes were demolished to make space for a more than 600,000 square foot warehouse, and the neighboring city of Rialto constructed a 2.2 million-square-foot facility next to a residential community. 

The proximity of these industrial facilities to homes, schools, and other neighborhood establishments raise concerns for residents, both due to high levels of air pollution exposure as well as the loss of neighborhood space as industrial facilities take over. 

Research from the University of California, Riverside highlights the overlapping forms of inequality that Black and Latino Inland Empire residents face, which were further compounded during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these residents act as essential workers and face air pollution exposure both at the workplace and at home, and COVID-19 cases saw higher rates in Latino populations, perhaps in part due to this greater exposure to pollution.

Bloomington exemplifies the need to recognize environmental justice communities, their complex and overlapping health risks, and make them an integral part of environmental policy and legislation.

AB 617: A step towards greater environmental justice in policy

In 2017, Assembly Bill 617 (AB 617) was signed into law in California. Under this legislation, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) is required to develop and implement additional measures, including carrying out monitoring and designing reduction plans, to lower air pollution in disadvantaged communities. CARB selects the highest priority communities in which to deploy air quality monitoring systems based on a variety of criteria, such as the number of schools and hospitals and the level of exposure to criteria air pollutants in the area.

CARB also established the Community Air Protection Program (CAPP) in response to AB 617 to aid in reducing air pollution at the community level, incorporating the use of low-cost monitoring equipment. These Community Air Grants allow community and environmental justice organizations to reduce their local air pollution in partnership with the state government. Over the course of 2 years, CARB's program has awarded approximately $15 million dollars and assisted 48 projects across California.

Specifically, making use of new air pollution monitoring technologies capable of detecting elevated exposures at a much more granular scale than the conventional ambient air quality monitors, AB 617 aims to establish a new community-scale emissions abatement program; updates air quality standards for certain stationary sources located in or contributing to non-attainment areas; provides for improved enforcement, and ensures community participation in the process.”

— Stacey Davis, Center for Clean Air Policy

By placing a focus on community-level air pollution, this legislation goes past the typical regional-level air quality monitoring. More granular air quality data brings to light the pollution disparities that manifest as a result of a history of discriminatory policy, redlining, and other facets of systemic racism. 

AB 617 legislation in California works to protect air quality in specific communities throughout the state, primarily through pollution abatement programs and air quality monitoring infrastructure deployed at the community level. By focusing on community-level action, this legislation ensures that the nuances of local air quality and their connection with the communities that they affect are captured.

While this legislation is the first of its kind, California’s AB 617 has the potential to be used as a model for how to distribute community air quality monitoring funding in other states. The communities below demonstrate the depth of the impact that a community-led air quality monitoring program can have in disadvantaged communities, empowering residents to take ownership of and advocate for air quality in their neighborhoods. 

Groundwork Richmond establishes a citizen air monitoring network for 110K residents

Richmond, a city located in the San Francisco Bay Area, has been faced with poor air quality and environmental conditions for decades. 

A Chevron refinery in the community, once the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the state, releases pollutants into the surrounding community—a historically disadvantaged community of color with one of the lowest income zip codes in the state. In 1990, 44.2% of Richmond’s residents under 18 years old lived in poverty, and today children have asthma at nearly double the rate of California’s general population.

The organization Groundwork Richmond applied for funding under AB 617’s Community Air Grants program to establish an air quality monitoring network using low-cost sensor technology. Having access to air quality data was a crucial part of empowering residents to fight back against this pollution.

Individuals from Groundwork Richmond install low-cost air quality monitors throughout neighborhoods in Richmond to capture real-time air quality data at a more local scale. This monitor is one of 50 sensors deployed in the city.

To learn more about Groundwork Richmond’s use of low-cost sensors to establish a community monitoring network, check out our customer story here.

Brightline Defense brings air quality monitoring to San Francisco communities

While the overall air quality in San Francisco has improved over the past few decades, different neighborhoods within the city still experience disproportionately poor air quality. Between vehicle and other transportation-related emissions, pollutant contributions from industry, and the high population density in San Francisco, air pollution remains a concern. Annual fire seasons on the west coast of the United States also heavily impact air quality in the region—for more about the destructive 2020 wildfire season’s impact on air quality, read our 2020 wildfire season recap.

Certain members of the population, including essential workers, children, and elderly individuals, can be particularly vulnerable to the negative health effects of air pollution. Brightline Defense, an environmental justice non-profit organization, used AB 617 funding to set up a low-cost air quality monitoring network at single-room occupancy (SRO) housing in San Francisco. SRO residents are often exposed to high levels of air pollution from nearby highways and outdated building ventilation systems, so setting up a community monitoring program for these individuals was an important part of engaging the community in the work for cleaner air.

Brightline Defense deployed 19 low-cost air quality monitors across San Francisco. Here, a device monitors local air quality changes from a nearby construction site to provide granular, real-time particulate matter data.

Read our customer story with Brightline Defense to learn more about their work in bringing greater environmental justice to the residents of San Francisco.

Valley Vision unites the community to establish air monitoring in Oak Park & North Sacramento

The neighborhoods of Oak Park and North Sacramento in California’s capital have also faced the hardships that come with poor air quality, coupled with the unique challenges of environmental justice communities. These predominantly low-income communities of color have lacked public investment for decades as previously redlined communities. With little existing air quality monitoring infrastructure or air pollution data availability, community members have little evidence to lobby for policy change to address local environmental issues.

Through California’s Community Air Protection Program, a low-cost air quality monitoring network will be operating in Oak Park and North Sacramento by the end of June 2021. Community members will have access to their local air quality data online, both for their own personal protection and to push for greater policy change. You can read more about Valley Vision’s work in these Sacramento communities here.

The future of community air quality monitoring for environmental justice communities

Increasing awareness, education, and public awareness of environmental justice communities suggest a bright future for community-based monitoring.

AB 617 legislature continues to provide grants and funding to establish monitoring networks in disadvantaged communities. In 2021, the total amount of funding available for Community Air Grants is $10 million, with tentative additional funds should they become available. AB 617 will provide up to $300,000 per network per year, an increase compared to previous years.

Additionally, President Biden’s federal budget request included a plan for a $100 million initiative in 2022 to further develop community air quality monitoring and create a notification system based on real-time data. Beyond California, AB 617 may become a framework that can be applied to other states to distribute funds to establish local community-based monitoring networks in environmental justice communities across the country.

California environmental justice communities can apply for AB 617 funding on CARB's website for a 3-month period beginning on July 2, 2021. Contact us here at Clarity to partner on a proposal for funding.

To recognize the work of an individual improving California’s air quality in your local community, you can also nominate a Clean Air Unsung Hero on the Clean Air Coalition’s website here. Applications are due by July 7th.