Public Law

Public Law Journal: Summer 2014, Vol. 37, No. 3

Willfully Ignorant: The California Building Industry Association’s Attempt to Eliminate CEQA’s Long-Standing Role in Protecting Human Health and Public Safety

By Kevin Bundy and Matt Vespa*

Relying on a recent string of poorly reasoned appellate cases, the California Building Industry Association ("CBIA") has asked the California Supreme Court to strip away critical public health and safety protection afforded by the California Environmental Quality Act ("CEQA"). For nearly 40 years, CEQA has required common-sense analysis of environmental harm caused by decisions to locate new projects in hazardous locations. If someone wants to build a school downwind of a toxic waste dump, or a high-rise apartment building astride an earthquake fault, CEQA has for decades reasonably required public disclosure and feasible mitigation of foreseeable risks to future students, residents, and workers who will use the project. CBIA, however, is arguing to the Supreme Court that both community members and their elected officials should remain willfully ignorant of these risks— and should do nothing to reduce them when approving new projects in dangerous areas.

CBIA calls this long-standing, common-sense analysis "reverse CEQA"—but there is no such thing, and there never has been. People have always been part of the "environment" CEQA aims to protect. In enacting CEQA, the Legislature repeatedly declared that the people of California— particularly in their health and in their need for "decent" homes in "suitable" living environments— are intended to be primary beneficiaries of the environmental protection effort launched by the statute.2 CEQA review thus was intended to encompass all aspects of a project’s environmental effects, including the relationship between humans and the environment and the need to provide a healthy environment for all Californians. Accordingly, in the CEQA Guidelines3 adopted by the Resources Agency and applied for nearly 40 years by countless public agencies throughout California, CEQA review has included an evaluation of the potentially significant impacts of bringing people and development to hazardous locations – such as areas of high wildfire risk, floodplains, or fault lines. Such analysis has never been more critical than it is now, as California faces rapid and dramatic shifts in environmental risks and hazards brought on by a changing climate.

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