August 19, 2005

Commentary:

Environmental Health Coalition:

Working for Environmental Justice in South Bay communities since 1990

(Editor’s Note: Published in response to the July 29, commentary by John Chávez entitled: “Methods Matter: EHC, Padilla & Chula Vista.”)

As one of the nation’s oldest and most effective environmental justice organizations, Environmental Health Coalition (EHC) has been working in South Bay communities and Tijuana for over 25 years. A recent commentary in your paper revealed that, in spite of a long history in the South Bay, some may not be aware of EHC history and accomplishments in the region. We are members of EHC who live in Chula Vista and represent EHC’s community leadership. We would like to take this opportunity to acquaint your readers on EHC’s past achievements in the South Bay and outline some of our current efforts in Chula Vista.

EHC South Bay Successes

EHC has worked steadily on Chula Vista issues for many years. In 1990, EHC stopped plans by the developers of the MidBayfront to discharge building dewatering wastes into the Bay. In 1996, we secured unanimous adoption of the first broad scale Municipal Pollution Prevention Policy in the region. In the mid-90s, we worked with the Port to change the industrial land use on the Harbor District to support commercial and public serving uses. In 1997, EHC lead a coalition of 14 organizations in a significant community organizing effort to create the South San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Hundreds of Chula Vista residents got active by writing letters, appearing in advertisements, knocking on doors, resulting in over 1,500 comments in support of the refuge. By 1999, the boundaries were set and the refuge became a reality all with unanimous support of the Chula Vista City Council. EHC also helped base the San Diego Bay Bird Festival in Chula Vista for two years. In 2002, we secured a stringent water discharge permit for the South Bay Power Plant. When fully implemented, the permit will radically reduce the impacts of the power plant on the Bay.

Who we are and how we operate

EHC’s core constituency are residents and workers who live in communities or work in jobs that are most affected by toxic pollution. In Chula Vista, we focus on the west-side where families are most impacted by toxic air emissions from South Bay Power Plant, BFGoodrich, and Highway 5. We are also concerned about residents who consume fish from San Diego Bay and feed it to their families. EHC has an elected volunteer Board of Directors that is ultimately responsible for the positions and actions of the organization and each of our four Campaigns are lead by EHC professional staff and a Community Action Team (CAT). EHC CATs are made up of community residents and representatives of allied organizations. As members of the Chula Vista CAT we advise and create positions and strategy for our organization. Our CAT currently has 20 members, 10 of whom are Chula Vista residents. The rest represent organizations with members who live in the City

Achieving Justice through Alliances and Community Organizing

Alliance building and community empowerment are our key strategies. EHC sees economic, social, and environmental justice as part and parcel of the same thing. Workers are an important part of our constituency and we have an enduring alliance with local unions who represent 16,000 working families in Chula Vista alone. We work in close alliance with other environmental groups to protect water quality and wildlife in the region. EHC always seeks to work cooperatively, even with those we don’t always agree with, when gains can be made for environmental and economic justice. It is not difficult to criticize what is wrong in the world, EHC moves to the next step to find and secure solutions to the problems communities face.

Community organizing at the core of EHC’s efforts to achieve social justice

Although officially, EHC only represents our membership (4,000 in the region) we constantly seek input from the most impacted communities. Over the past 10 years, EHC has canvassed and surveyed public opinions on many issues in Chula Vista from creation of the wildlife refuge, the proposed Bayfront development, and the future of the power plant. As CAT members we talk frequently with our neighbors and share information with them. EHC ran a successful voter registration and empowerment campaign in five west-side precincts during the last election. Currently, EHC organizers are going door to door talking with residents on the west-side about improvements they want to see in their neighborhoods and there is a community meeting planned in September for Southwest residents.

Chula Vista Bayfront Master Plan

In late 2000, the development plans for the Chula Vista Bayfront were unraveling at a rate that rivaled a nuclear reactor going critical. In his very first official action, Mayor-elect Steve Padilla presided over what was the first of over 30 public and stakeholder meetings on the Bayfront Plan that have been held to date in advance of the commencement of the formal environmental review process. EHC has promoted and participated in the creation of three stakeholder working groups (two on the Bayfront and one on the Power Plant) as a way to ensure that community members, whether they were EHC members or not, had a chance to provide meaningful input into the planning process. As a result many of the issues challenging Bayfront development in the past are being resolved and may, for the first time, lead to the adoption of a plan that enjoys support from the larger community.

What Next?

EHC will continue our active role in Chula Vista with ambitious goals. We are working diligently to hasten the removal of the current South Bay Power Plant. This inefficient facility devastates the ecosystem of the South Bay, pollutes downwind neighborhoods, and its visual blight frustrates quality development in the area. Our strategy is to replace the plant with an energy strategy that reduces or eliminates environmental impacts and creates good jobs. Recently, as part of the Apollo Alliance, EHC has partnered with the City of Chula Vista to promote fair rules for Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) by the California Public Utilities Commission

We are also working on land use planning and Westside Neighborhood Improvement to secure additions to the General Plan update that establish policies on environmental justice, sustainable energy resources, and safe location of residences and schools. EHC has held two well-attended public trainings on transit and transportation and affordable housing to address the issues of redevelopment.

We will be working to develop ecotourism for the South Bay, cleanup of contaminated groundwater on the Bayfront, promotion of a restoration plan for the National Wildlife Refuge, and many other important issues promise to keep us busy.

EHC and the Chula Vista City Council

One last point. EHC is very proud of our positive working relationships with the Mayor and the City Council. This doesn’t mean that we all agree at all times on all things. Contrary to allegations made in this paper by other writers, we made no secret of our strong support for Mayor Steve Padilla for the Coastal Commission and we are proud of our role in his appointment. His leadership in the recent decision to cap analysis of the number of residential units at 2,000 on the Chula Vista Bayfront was pivotal and, once again, his leadership kept this project on a forward track. Leading Sierra Club Coastal Activist Mark Massara had this to say about Commissioner Padilla’s first meeting “If a Coastal Commissioner can be judged upon a single meeting, Chula Vista Mayor Steve Padilla hit the ball out of the park. He was present, focused, deliberative, sensitive to property rights and aggressively protective of coastal protection and public access. He was just great, hard to imagine being any better.”

There are many ways to work for social change, and many opinions about how it is best achieved. EHC is a value based organization that employs strategies of community organizing and advocacy to work cooperatively and collaboratively to achieve environmental and economic justice for communities who need and want it. Please see our web site www.environmentalhealth.org or contact us at (619) 474-0220 for more information. We welcome your involvement.

Mariana Lopez
Lynda Gilgun
Judy Cascales
David DiDonato
Theresa Acerro
Bill Richter

We are all Chula Vista residents and members of EHC’s Chula Vista Community Action Team.

Letters to the Editor Return to the Frontpage