CITY HALL — The City Council approved a unique law this week that enshrined the rights of the environment and residents’ rights to clean air and water.
The ordinance, known as the Sustainability Bill of Rights, asserts that corporations and their leadership do not have special privileges or powers under the law that supersede the community’s rights.
It also requires that the Office of Sustainability and the Environment prepare a report every two years documenting progress on the Sustainable City Plan, an effort begun in the mid-1990s to create benchmarks and goals to make Santa Monica more environmentally friendly, and that City Hall hold a public hearing.
Finally, and perhaps most controversially, some believe that the law gives residents the ability to sue a polluter themselves when one of those rights are violated, without waiting for City Hall or other agencies to get the ball rolling.
The ordinance was, in Councilmember Kevin McKeown’s words, a fundamental power shift away from business interests and toward the community that has not yet happened in the environmental movement.
“Unrestrained capitalism has extracted the good out of our environment in many, many cases. Here, for the first time, we as a city are taking a stand and saying we’re not going to let that happen anymore,” McKeown said.
The Sustainability Bill of Rights emerged from the Task Force on the Environment — consisting of a group of residents — after the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which further cemented the rights of corporations as individuals in American law. The court’s decision opened the doors to unlimited campaign spending on behalf of companies.
The law was also a reaction to the spread of fracking, a process of extracting fossil fuels from the ground that many environmentalists say is extremely damaging to the environment, poisoning groundwater and even causing earthquakes.
The City Council approved a resolution in January 2012 backing the concept of the Sustainability Bill of Rights, but the resolution had no teeth. Those in support of the law passed Tuesday feel the City Council’s vote changed that.
“The fact that it establishes individual environmental rights is very important,” said Mark Gold, former president of nonprofit Heal the Bay and associate director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.
Gold has spent much of his career fighting to save the environment from the negative impacts of human habitation on the Santa Monica Bay and other water ecosystems.
His primary tool was the Clean Water Act, a 1972 federal law that regulates quality standards for surface water, but the law lost effectiveness and involved arcane measurements that were difficult for members of the public to understand.
This ordinance finds strength in its return to basic environmental roots, Gold said.
Supporters of the Sustainability Bill of Rights believe that the law gives them the ability to sue polluters in court if City Hall does not do so. That could include what some call Santa Monica’s “groundwater wars,” with over a decade spent in court to get companies to clean up dangerous chemicals that had leached into the groundwater through buried gasoline storage tanks.
“That legal standing did not exist before,” said Cris Gutierrez, a member of the Task Force on the Environment.
It was carefully-crafted to prevent abuse, and cannot be used to protect every street tree or stop every development in the city, Gold said.
“The ability of an individual to sue the city because they don’t like a development approval, that’s not in there,” Gold said.
Whether residents will be able to file any kind of lawsuit may be up to the courts to decide.
Jeff Caufield, an environmental attorney with the Los Angeles firm Caufield & James, thought there might be some conflict if a resident filed a private suit or acted as “a private attorney general.”
“It will likely need to be litigated and a decision made by a court on this particular ordinance and language,” Caufield said.
In the meantime, Gold hopes that the ordinance will keep the environment front and center for policy makers, and be a model for other cities who want to take a stand on the environment.
“There is a precedent-setting nature to this that the city is very aware of,” Gold said.