THE SOUTH STOCKTON classroom where Ashley Pearl Pana spent recess trapped indoors is still there, 16 years later.
When the wind stirred up dust and soot, when the sun stewed smokestack and tailpipe exhaust into smog, when pollution squeezed her airways, Pana’s asthma forced her inside, behind the classroom’s closed door.
“All the kids were playing outside, and I’d just watch them through the windows,” Pana, now 23, said while visiting her old elementary school. A new generation of children, masked against COVID-19’s newest threats to still-developing lungs, ran in the playground.
It was a clear day, the kind that makes South Stockton’s consistently filthy air difficult to imagine. But in one of California’s most dangerously polluted communities, emergency room visits for asthma attacks are among the highest in the state.
“No matter what, air quality is always an issue in my life,” Pana said. “Something I have to be constantly aware about.”
A four-year-old state law, known as AB 617, is supposed to clear the air for low-income communities of color that bear the brunt of California’s air pollution. The law established the Community Air Protection Program, which tasks residents and local officials with shaping regulations and steering state money to a handful of hotspots.
“No matter what, air quality is always an issue in my life. Something I have to be constantly aware about.”Ashley Pearl Pana, Stockton resident
So far, more than $1 billion in state funds has been appropriated for community grants, industry incentives and government costs. But it remains impossible to say yet whether the program has improved the smoggy and toxic air that almost 4 million people breathe in 15 communities.
The 15 communities, stretching from the Central Valley to the border with Mexico, include Richmond, West Oakland, Stockton, San Bernardino and Wilmington. Predominantly home to Latino, Black and Asian American residents, many have high poverty rates.
Now, even as the law’s clean-air program prepares to fold in new neighborhoods, a major question lingers: Is it working?
“The jury’s out,” said Jonathan London, an associate professor of human ecology at the University of California, Davis who is studying the environmental justice law. It’s “an ongoing experiment with the potential for significant benefits, but also significant obstacles.”
The struggle to achieve the law’s ambitious goals has been marked by battles between residents and local air regulators, and by jurisdictional juggling among agencies, each responsible for a different portion of pollution. Meanwhile, people continue to suffer.
“Is it having the improvements that I want it to have, at the level that I wanted to have? No, we need a lot more,” said Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, a Democrat from Bell Gardens who authored the bill that became law. “Is it engaging the community and empowering them, so they could push for change? … Oh, definitely.”
The law is just one tool — and, its author acknowledges, an imperfect one at that — intending to fix decades of environmental racism, land use decisions and freeway construction that have left poor communities of color hemmed in by California’s industrial corridors. It’s a monumental task, and experts say no one law will be victorious.
At stake is the health of millions of people who live near California’s refineries, ports, freeways and other sources of tiny, lung-damaging particles, gases that form smog and trigger asthma attacks, and toxic air pollutants linked to cancer.
UC Berkeley researchers lauded the program as a potential model for environmental justice policy, though they said it was too early to gauge its success. California Air Resources Board staff called it “a catalyst to change the way we work with communities.”
Yet Stockton residents and community groups have had a far different experience, tangling with local air regulators about funding decisions and delayed air pollution monitoring.
“At the beginning of this process, we were all Kumbaya,” said Dillon Delvo, co-founder of Little Manila Rising, a historic preservation organization turned environmental justice group in South Stockton.
“By the end,” he said, “it was terrible.”
‘Tremendous amount of frustration’
For longer than half a century, California’s state and local air regulators have enacted pioneering rules to clean up pollution from smokestacks and tailpipes. Trailblazing mandates to tackle diesel exhaust — a known carcinogen — and other toxic air contaminants cut Californians’ cancer risk from breathing air by 76 percent.
But it hasn’t been enough. Parts of California still have the worst air quality in the country, with about 87 percent of Californians living in areas that exceeded federal healthy air standards in 2020.
In the San Joaquin Valley alone, breathing fine particles is estimated to cause 1,200 premature deaths from respiratory and heart disease per year. Poor communities of color are still exposed to double the cancer-causing diesel exhaust than more affluent neighbors.