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Environmental Justice Leader Says Proposition 30 Would Help Struggling Areas Clear the Air

Environmental Justice Leader Says Proposition 30 Would Help Struggling Areas Clear the Air

Ana Gonzalez, executive director of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, stands in front of her home in Rialto, California. A warehouse went up in front of her old house and now there’s a proposal for a development behind her new home. Her son, like many others in the region, has developed asthma due to air pollution. (Heidi de Marco/KHN)

RIALTO, Calif. — Ana Gonzalez grew up watching the Inland Empire transform from citrus groves and grapevines into warehouses and retail distribution centers. The booming region east of Los Angeles now comprises 4.65 million people — and 1 billion square feet of warehouse space.

In 2015, one of those warehouses was built right in front of her old house, blocking her view of her suburban neighborhood. Soon thereafter, her son battled bronchitis and pneumonia. “It got so bad that I ended up taking him to the ER about three to four times a year,” she said. Her son, now 16, like so many others in the region developed asthma due to air pollution. She grew concerned that state policies were overlooking predominantly Hispanic and low-income residents in her community.

Gonzalez, 35, has evolved from a concerned parent into an environmental advocate. Her years as an educator specializing in bilingual and special education, along with a bout of homelessness, fuel her passion for advocating for marginalized communities. Today, she serves as executive director of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, which works on air quality and environmental justice issues on behalf of the region.

Gonzalez and the organization have endorsed Proposition 30 on the November ballot. Funded primarily by the ride-hailing company Lyft, it would impose an additional 1.75% tax on what Californians earn above $2 million per year to fund zero-emission vehicle purchases, electric charging stations, and wildfire prevention programs.

While the initiative would provide subsidies for low-income consumers, it would also subsidize businesses, such as Lyft and other ride-hailing companies, by helping them add clean cars to their fleet. Lyft and other ride-hailing companies are under a mandate to make at least 90% of their vehicle fleets electric by 2030.

The once-popular measure has slipped into toss-up territory. A September poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found 55% of likely voters back the measure, down from 63% in April. And it has divided environmentalists and Democrats.

The measure would generate an estimated $3.5 billion to $5 billion a year, growing over time, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office. Of that, 45% would primarily subsidize zero-emission vehicles and 35% would boost construction of residential and public charging stations, with at least half of each category directed to low-income households and communities. The remaining 20% would fund wildfire suppression and prevention.

The state Democratic Party and the American Lung Association endorsed Proposition 30, calling it an innovative measure that will expand access to electric vehicle chargers for every Californian, regardless of where they live or work.

But opponents include the California Teachers Association and Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who recently called the measure “a Trojan horse that puts corporate welfare above the fiscal welfare of our entire state.”

California is a leader in pushing — and paying for — clean energy, but the state has been criticized for failing to distribute California’s clean-car subsidies equitably. For example, a 2020 study found wealthier communities in Los Angeles County had more electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles than its disadvantaged communities. And state Assembly member Jim Cooper, a Black Democrat from Elk Grove who will become Sacramento County sheriff next year, has said the state’s push for electric vehicles fuels “environmental racism.”

Gonzalez points to studies, such as a report by Earthjustice, showing how people who live close to warehouses are more likely to be low-income and at higher risk of asthma due to the air pollution generated by diesel trucks.

KHN reporter Heidi de Marco met with Gonzalez at her new home, where a development is proposed behind her property, to discuss why she and her organization endorsed Proposition 30. Gonzalez said she has not been paid by Lyft. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A photo shows a row of parked diesel trucks behind a gate.
Diesel trucks contribute to the Inland Empire’s air pollution, which is among the nation’s worst.(Heidi de Marco/KHN)

Q: Why is Proposition 30 important for your community?

Our families are dying, and nobody is doing anything about it. We’re seeing all the illnesses that are connected to pollution, such as asthma, pneumonia, lung cancer, COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease], and even diabetes.

We just decided to support it because we felt, as a team, that it was the right thing to do given how impacted we are by car and truck pollution. There are layers upon layers of pollution.

Along with the influx of warehouses bringing tons of trucks and their diesel exhaust emissions, the Inland Empire is unique when it comes to pollution. We have all the polluting industries that you can think of, from rail yards bringing more diesel emissions, from the trains to gas plants, which are emitting a lot of pollution. We have toxic landfills, airports, and all the car traffic from the intersections of the 10, 60, 215, and the 15 freeways.

Q: Proposition 30 is funded by Lyft, and Newsom opposes it, calling it a “cynical scheme” by the company to get more clean cars for its fleet. Lyft has been criticized by labor groups for lowering compensation through gig work instead of paying fair wages and benefits. Why are you siding with Lyft?

I see it two ways. One, yes, we need to hold Lyft accountable for the way they treat their drivers and making sure they’re paying them fair wages. I do believe Lyft should do better. But the way that I see it, the fact that they’re transitioning into clean-energy vehicles is where I have to give them props.

Even the developers in our communities have the money to transition their diesel trucks to clean energy, but they’re not investing in that. We have a climate change crisis, and I don’t necessarily see them as the enemy. I see them as folks trying to be part of the solution and transitioning to clean energy.

Q: Will the initiative make a difference when so much of the Inland Empire’s pollution is from Los Angeles and the warehouse industry?

It will make electric vehicles and clean energy vehicles more affordable. And it would create those incentives that our low-income community needs, especially our small-business owners like our self-employed truck drivers that cannot afford to transition to a clean-energy vehicle or a truck. This program would give them those subsidies that they need so they can afford to transition.

This proposition will also give money to expand the clean-vehicle infrastructure that we need. Because here we are telling everybody to change to clean-energy vehicles, but we don’t have the infrastructure. Where are they going to charge their cars when they go to work? Or when they go to school? Or even in their own homes?

So, this campaign would put us in the right direction because I don’t see any other efforts being done, including with the state. I feel like sometimes the governor is a little hypocritical because here he is trying to be a champion for climate change, but he’s not showing a real plan to transition compared to this proposition, where they at least have a plan in place to tackle that transition.

A photo shows an electric vehicle charging station.
Ana Gonzalez and the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice endorse Proposition 30, which would impose new taxes on wealthy Californians to help low-income communities purchase zero-emission vehicles and install electric charging stations.(Heidi de Marco/KHN)

Q: The state and federal governments have already invested billions in clean-car programs. Why is Proposition 30 needed?

It’s going to take a while before the money gets to the appropriate agencies. Another thing that I see that the government fails at is that they always leave out the most affected, marginalized, disenfranchised communities such as the Inland Empire. We have been overseen for so long, and every time the government creates these programs, all this investment and infrastructure, local agencies sometimes don’t know about it — or they don’t do the work to ask for the money.

And what this program does through Prop. 30 is that it’s taxing the rich, the people that make over $2 million. We always give the tax breaks to the rich and it’s about time that the rich pay their fair share.

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.