Opinion: Why exempting NFL stadiums from environmental laws is a bad idea

What does the California budget process have to do with a new NFL stadium in downtown Los Angeles?  The talk on the political street is that stadium proponents Tim Lieweke and his company AEG are pressing the Governor and the Speaker of the Assembly to exempt their project from the state’s most fundamental and effective environmental law – the California Environmental Quality Act or CEQA – as part of any budget deal.  Such an exemption would allow AEG to avoid evaluating and mitigating the project’s environmental impacts, like air pollution and traffic congestion, or even disclosing them to the public.  At least 112 of California’s leading environmental organizations have now joined together to oppose the effort.

This kind of end run around CEQA should matter to everyone.  It certainly matters to the communities directly affected by the AEG project.  But it also matters to the continued integrity of CEQA itself.  In the 40 years since California Governor Ronald Reagan signed CEQA into law in August 1970, CEQA has more than fulfilled its promise as ‘California’s Environmental Bill of Rights’ by insuring comprehensive environmental review, mitigation of project impacts, consideration of less damaging alternatives, and transparent public participation at every step along the way for new projects and development.

 CEQA has succeeded in countless instances, becoming a jobs stimulator and economic bonanza along the way.  Over the last four decades, while thousands of projects have undergone systematic environmental review, California’s population has doubled and our economy has more than tripled, yet our air and water is cleaner, our wildlife is more plentiful, our communities are healthier, and our understanding and appreciation of the connectedness of human and natural systems is better, for our families and future generations.  Now that is something to brag about!

If not for CEQA, there would be oil derricks on the beach at Will Rogers State Beach, and high-rise hotels in Mammoth Lakes, California.  CEQA saved the Owens Valley and Mono Lake and its adjacent streams. There would have been a towering toxic waste incinerator in East Los Angeles just yards from homes, churches, hospitals, and schools.  CEQA is directly responsible for protecting over 20,000 acres of prime habitat in the Santa Monica Mountains alone.  CEQA also has saved tens of thousands of acres of farm, forest and wetlands property throughout California.  In short, CEQA is an all-purpose environmental protection workhorse, forcing consideration of everything from sprawl to air quality to urban parks, from environmental justice to climate change.  And for those benefits, the cost of implementing CEQA amounts to pennies – not a single study has ever shown that CEQA adversely impacts the California economy in any way.

Now Mr. Lieweke and AEG want to develop their stadium project without any environmental review or CEQA compliance whatsoever.   In effect, they seek special favors and unfair economic advantages in pursuit of private profit, at the expense of the environment and public transparency.

Such a drastic departure from the law flies in the face of recent successful projects like Staples Center and LA Live – both of which underwent and were improved by preparation of environmental impact reports (EIRs) under CEQA.  Even the previously proposed NFL projects involving stadiums for the LA Coliseum and the Rose Bowl underwent EIR analysis, as did the NFL project proposed for the City of Industry (Majestic).  And the cities of San Francisco and Santa Clara are doing EIRs for their proposed NFL stadiums.

AEG suggests that it only seeks the same favor as the Majestic project approved by the legislature last year, but that project came with a full EIR and significant groundbreaking environmental measures and protections.  There is simply no legal precedent or economic justification for allowing AEG to break the environmental bank.

If AEG gets a free pass, why not more socially important development projects like hospitals, schools, fire stations, or churches?  And then, why not shopping malls or other commercial and residential developments that meet various community needs?  How far down this slippery slope before we entirely undermine California’s most significant and successful environmental law?  

CEQA has a long history of working well to protect Californians and our economy.   Our elected officials must continue to apply CEQA fairly to all projects, not waive requirements at the whim of the wealthy or the politically connected.  Or we will all be poorer in many ways.

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