Envirowimps: L.A.'s Big Green Groups Get Comfy 

Activists leave the street-fighting to the little guys

Wednesday, Jul 1 2009

So far, 2009 has not been a banner year for the environmental movement in Los Angeles. As the area’s mainstream enviros buddy up with self-described green politicians and deep-pocketed land speculators and unions in Los Angeles and Sacramento, who have seemingly joined the “sustainability” cause, an odd thing is happening: Environmentalists who should be at the top of their game are turning into servants for more powerful, better politically connected masters, and suffering a string of defeats to boot. 

The first bruising local loss was dealt on March 3, when voters shot down a controversial, Villaraigosa-backed solar-energy initiative, Measure B, which many prominent environmentalists supported heartily. The stunning defeat came after a flurry of bad press, which accused the mayor and his political friends of secret backroom deals, and criticized the way the measure was rushed onto the ballot, for no apparent reason, by the Los Angeles City Council. The political chicanery turned off the city’s mostly liberal voters, and Measure B went down hard and heavy. The losses kept racking up from there.

On April 29, U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder placed a temporary injunction on a key clause of a “clean trucks” program at the heavily polluted Port of Los Angeles, thus allowing independent truckers to continue working for themselves rather than for trucking companies. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters came up with the controversial clause, and environmentalists, according to Coalition for Clean Air president Alberto B. Mendoza, signed off on it.

click to flip through (5) JENNIE WARREN - Andy Lipkis of Tree People says enviros lack the votes.
  • Jennie Warren
  • Andy Lipkis of Tree People says enviros lack the votes.

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The federal judge’s ruling may not seem like a big deal, but environmentalists agreed with city pols and the big union that forcing independent truckers to work for a company would ensure that only clean trucks rumble through the port. Their plan, ridiculed as a sop to those who hoped to turn the truckers into Teamsters, went out the window with Snyder’s injunction.

That same day, the American Lung Association scored L.A.’s ozone layer as the dirtiest in the country, and L.A. as the third-worst city for year-round air pollution. The Port of Los Angeles is a very bad actor, its belching emissions creating a dramatic increase in cancer rates in numerous suburbs upwind of the harbor. A federal Environmental Protection Agency study released June 24 says those emissions have turned pleasant, tree-lined places such as Cerritos, miles away, into Southern California’s hot spots for cancer and other diseases.

More bad news followed for enviros, when, on May 10, the L.A. Times reported that major oil companies and gas-station chains collected “hundreds of millions of dollars” from a state environmental-cleanup fund that was meant for mom-and-pop businesses. It was a public-relations fiasco of the highest proportions, with big businesses showing once again that they’re more than willing to co-opt a well-intentioned project for a lucrative payday — and do it gleefully, behind the backs of greens, who had supported creation of the fund.

“This sort of green-washing is unacceptable,” says Marcia Hanscom, one of the rare environmentalists who openly question the effectiveness of the green movement. “Large, polluting corporations should not be allowed to access funds like this — especially when their record profits translate to their not really needing public funds.”

It’s a cautionary tale for this city’s environmentalists, who must increasingly deal with the fact that labor unions, big businesses and politicians are embracing a green economy to solve their own financial and political woes. If the big boys aren’t handled smartly, the green agenda — repairing a damaged planet, and protecting the local environment in which we live — may end up watered-down, even an afterthought. Yet today, in one of the most politically progressive, seemingly eco-conscious cities in the United States, environmentalists have increasingly become a marginalized voice struggling to transition to a strong political force.

“I don’t think the traditional environmental organizations are up to speed of where we need to be,” says Miguel Luna, executive director of Urban Semillas, a grass-roots environmental group based in Northeast L.A., who, though careful not to condemn, doesn’t necessarily go along with the strategies of the big-name green groups here.

Mendoza, president of the influential mainstream Coalition for Clean Air, concurs: “If we don’t become more modern in our approach, we’ll become obsolete.”

Yet environmental groups are trying to raise funds in a terrible economy, which is putting the crunch on a number of green nonprofits, environmentalists aren’t effectively widening their movement to include community groups such as neighborhood councils, and leading environmentalists sometimes act as silent accomplices to the things they criticize. Eco-conscious honchos privately grumble about Villaraigosa’s “lack of vision” and “slow action” on green issues but give him a free pass in public.

“Nobody has come out against [Villaraigosa] because he’s trying,” explains Melanie Winter, director of the River Project, a grass-roots environmental group based in Studio City. “But because of his potential, he’s been a disappointment.”

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