Recent litigation by the California Attorney General has sparked renewed interest in the role of environmental justice under federal and state project environmental review laws. Some say that inserting environmental justice into environmental review marks a “radical expansion” of the role of social justice in environmental review. Environmental justice is now a wellestablished federal legal doctrine addressing communities disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards as a result of their social or economic demographics. The doctrine is supported by President Clinton’s executive order, along with agency guidelines and regulations under the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”), which govern federal project environmental review. Using the environmental justice doctrine as a tool during project environmental review assures careful analysis of local or regional impacts on communities burdened by adverse social and economic conditions. Federal civil rights laws also support the doctrine, notwithstanding recent U.S. Supreme Court civil rights decisions restricting access to justice and consideration of race in employment testing. California has followed the federal lead and has been a leading state in adopting environmental justice statutes and policies. Thus, it is no surprise that the Attorney General of California has sought to employ environmental justice during the environmental review process.
California’s civil rights laws are stronger than federal civil rights protections, and the state has endorsed environmental justice, both generally and specifically, in its global warming regulatory regime. These legal requirements support incorporating environmental justice when applying the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”), which is largely modeled on NEPA. Environmental justice assures that the physical impacts are properly understood in the socioeconomic context, and that cumulative impacts, possible mitigation, and alternatives are properly assessed. Recent California case law questioning CEQA’s application to projects situated near hazards does not impact the fundamental role of environmental justice in environmental review. The Attorney General is properly concerned with projects that add to the burdens of vulnerable low-income communities or communities of color.
19 Hastings W.-N.W. J. Env. L. & Pol'y 41 (2013).