People Over Profits: California Must Protect Our Communities From Construction-Based Pollution

September 8th, 2021

East Los Angeles Interchange, Los Angeles River bridge construction (1959), Robert Owen Winkler

After 12 years since the last Construction General Permit (7 years overdue), the State Water Board has proposed an update to its statewide permit. This update is not only overdue, but needed to incorporate new statewide policies – such as the Trash Amendments to prevent the proliferation of trash in our waterways – and to properly incorporate clean water laws to prevent the proliferation of pollutants that chronically impair our rivers, streams, and beaches.

Construction is anything but benign – it reshapes environments and can cause irreparable harm to neighboring communities by washing sediment-based pollutants and metals from the project site and into nearby streams, creeks, and rivers. And in many disadvantaged communities, underlying soil and sediment contain contaminants ranging from lead, heavy metals, PCBs, to other pollutants that can expose surrounding communities to these legacy contaminants when the soil is disturbed.

Too many low-income and communities of color have already been politically and financially exploited by the placement of hazardous waste or industrial sites adjacent to residential neighborhoods and communities. In large part, this is due to the historical exclusion of primarily low-income communities of color from policy decisions that directly affect their health and quality of life. This exclusion has led to the development and construction of industrial facilities, refineries, superfund sites, freeways, and other large infrastructure adjacent to low-income or underserved residential neighborhoods – and leaving communities sandwiched between polluting industries and freeway corridors that make air unsafe to breath and waters unsafe to swim.

California’s Environmental Protection Agency recently released the Pollution and Prejudice Project to help agency staff and the public visualize and understand how institutional and structural racism have shaped the land use policies that impact California residents today. But understanding this history is only one part of this equation. California’s agencies – including the Water Boards – need to take action to end and remedy problematic policies that continue to plague communities with pollution. 

Properly incorporating existing water quality requirements – known as Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) and their associated numeric effluent limits for specific pollutants – is one step the Water Boards can, and need to, take to stop chronic pollution, clean up our waterways, and make our communities healthier.

The State Water Board’s proposed new permit is not without opposition. Large corporations, construction companies, and utilities like PG&E, Teichert Construction, and the Building Industries Association are concerned that complying with protective water quality requirements will increase project costs – and ultimately are arguing that profits are more important than people.

Relaxing water quality requirements in communities that already face generational harm – requirements that are in place to ultimately put an end to ongoing pollution and degradation – is simply not acceptable.

Everyone deserves equal access to non-toxic and vibrant communities. The reissuance of the State Water Board’s Construction General Permit, complete with protective water quality requirements, is an important part the solution to stop ongoing pollution and restore the health of all Californians.

California Coastkeeper Alliance fights for swimmable, fishable, drinkable waters for all Californians. Stay informed by subscribing to our newsletter, becoming a lifetime member, or following us on social media: @CA_Waterkeepers.

Categories: Happening Now, Stormwater