CCAEJ's approach to community empowerment is grounded in the battle of the small, Inland Valley community of Glen Avon and its fight to stop pollution from the Stringfellow Acid Pits, California’s top Superfund priority site and one of the most notorious toxic dumps in the nation. In 1978, members of this rural community, including CCAEJ founder Penny Newman, began a 28-year battle that stopped human exposure to hundreds of different toxic chemicals at the site, and obtained compensation of more than $114 million for thousands of community residents. Stringfellow is now the only toxic site that has its own section within the Department of Toxic Substance Control, including its own staff and its own budget. Our efforts to fight toxic exposures at Stringfellow also set the stage for major changes in state and federal policies dealing with toxic chemicals. We pushed for and realized a number of policy changes in California, including:
- We won the establishment of a State Superfund program, providing matching funds to qualify for federal Superfund money and address sites that don’t qualify for the federal program.
- We were the first community to receive a Technical Advisor, with the purpose of supporting community members during the highly technical Stringfellow cleanup process.
- We were the first community to establish a Community Advisory Committee (now standard practice among a variety of agencies).
- We were the first community to win intervention in a federal enforcement case; 250 major corporate polluters challenged our standing all the way to the US Supreme Court—we won, and remain interveners to this day.
At the federal level, we established the model for public participation in the federal CERCLA (Superfund) process; our Technical Advisor program was used as the model for the EPA Technical Assistance Grant (TAG) program; and after winning our Supreme Court challenge, the federal law was changed making it the statutory right of communities to be involved in decisions at Superfund sites.
Following these major victories, the region continued to be flooded with plans for countless polluting facilities proposed by powerful corporate interests. The Inland Valleys of southern California needed a resource and support organization for the individuals and neighborhood groups who were fighting to keep our community free of environmental health hazards. In 1993, CCAEJ became an official nonprofit organization founded on this principle, and on the belief that residents not only have a right to participate in decisions that directly affect them, but also a responsibility to do so.
Today, our work in the Inland Valley continues to serve as a model for others across California and even the nation. As California’s population continues to grow, our efforts to protect the environmental health of its communities becomes ever more relevant. CCAEJ’s continued leadership is essential to ensuring a safe, habitable and sustainable California for all.