Communities for a Better Environment

Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), previously known as Citizens for a Better Environment, is a policy focused non-profit organization started in 1971 by Marc Anderson and David Comey in Chicago, Illinois.[1] In the late 1970s and early 1980s CBE expanded to California, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Today, CBE is active primarily in California having established itself in San Francisco in 1978 and expanded to Los Angeles in 1982. CBE, now based in Oakland, CA and Huntington Park, CA, has succeeded in affecting communities throughout California, including: Richmond, East Oakland, Vernon, Huntington Park, Boyle Heights, Pacoima, Wilmington, and SE Los Angeles.[2] CBE was the first environmental organization to practice door-to-door canvassing by directly involving community members.[2] In 1980 CBE won the United States Supreme Court decision Village of Schaumburg v. Citizens for a Better Environment 444 U.S. 620 protecting the 1st and 14th Amendment Rights of door-to-door activists with CBE and countless other public interest organizations. CBE's early combination of grassroots organizing with research and legal work provided the innovative edge needed to challenge large scale industries, refineries, and policies.


CBE aims to strengthen low-income communities of color to achieve environmental health and justice by reduction and prevention of pollution, while creating a network of sustainable communities. CBE focuses on urban areas which maintain a disproportionate concentration of low-income minorities with some of the poorest environmental health conditions due to heavy pollution from refineries, ports, power plants, freeways, etc.[3] These communities are more susceptible to cancer and diseases including asthma, heart disease, premature deaths, birth defects, etc.[3] CBE values environmental and social sustainability as an intrinsic right for all humans to access clean air and drinking water regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, culture, ability, nationality, or income.[4] CBE is committed to empowering the community by giving organizational skills, leadership training, legal, scientific, and technical assistance to communities that may effectively fight injustice and create durable change.[3]

Early work

CBE began to set the precedent for water, air, and toxic pollution advocating for community concerns and environmental regulation. In 1977, CBE organized with community members against the Diablo Canyon Power Plant in San Francisco, California.[5] In 1983, landmark report and investigation of Bay Area toxic secretion, "Toxics in the Bay", held Chevron and others accountable of toxic discharge in the 1985 Basin Plan Discharge Program.[2] The Basin Plan expanded to become the San Francisco Bay Region Basin Plan in 2004. The plan complied with California State and Federal anti-degradation policies awaiting approval by San Francisco State Water Board and the US Environmental Protection Agency.[6] CBE pressured Bay Area Quality Management District to reevaluate permit granted to Kaiser Cement and Gypsum Corporation resulting in sulfur dioxide reduction by 50%. As well as, limited use of perchloroethylene, a.k.a. Tetrachloroethylene, in Vallejo, California dry cleaners.[2]

Research approach

Several studies support the idea that low-income communities of color bear the burden of unequal access to a healthy environment, which prioritizes CBE's effort to work with communities to fight such injustices.[7] CBE focuses on educating low-income communities of color and advocating engagement by community meetings, political education, and school groups where people are empowered to fight local pollution by working together towards achieving healthier communities.[8] CBE also values scientific research to fully comprehend the direct and indirect consequences of toxicity and chemical secretion.[8] Using secondary data and partnering with health providers and academic institutions, CBE practices human subjects research and online training for human subject protection via the National Institute of Health website.[9] They are effectively committed to finding ‘who’ and ‘where’ the most affected communities are today, as well as ways of prevention for the community's tomorrow. CBE uses Community-based participatory research, by actively working together to gather their own research, which increases knowledge and awareness of local issues by creating a community where members are encouraged to participate in fighting against pollution.[10] Outreach and awareness are promoted by leading toxic tours of oil refineries, ports, and facilities where community members share their personal stories sparking advocacy and a better understanding about pollution.[11] The pay-it-forward affect, has the ability to reach thousands of communities by encouraging active participation against injustices.

Case studies

1. Community-Based Participatory Research as a Tool for Policy Change: A Case Study of the Southern California Environmental Justice Collaborative.[12] CBE collaborated with Liberty Hill Foundation and an academic research team from University of California, Santa Cruz, Brown University, and Occidental College to have Rule 1402 reviewed.[13] Rule 1402, included in the South Coast Air Quality Management District was the state's goal in 1994 to reduce public health risk from cancerous and noncancerous emissions by large industries.[14] The maximum individual cancer risk was initially set at 100 cancer risks per million, yet due to CBE's collaboration, it was reduced to 25 cancer risks per million 6 years later, representing a reduction in acceptable risk levels to 75%.[15] This collaboration led to more efforts in the reduction of allowable risk level faced by various communities and encouraged the California Environmental Protection Agency to broaden their view on issues such as these, to put more emphasis on risk exposure when making new policies.[12]

2. Linking Exposure Assessment Science With Policy Objectives for Environmental Justice and Breast Cancer Advocacy: The Northern California Household Exposure Study.[16] CBE's research contributed to an investigation of a high amount of pollutants increasing a woman's chance of getting cancer. In the United States, African American women have the highest rate of cancer and mortality than any other race.[17]

Studies reflect their chances are higher even when African American women have the same accessibility to mammograms and other treatments as white women.[16] In a study done by Brody et al. indoor and outdoor air pollution, compared Richmond communities near oil refineries and shipping facilities with communities in Bolinas, a rural town just north of San Francisco found that Richmond had a higher concentration of pollutants in their indoor air. The study brought awareness to how indoor air can indicate and reflect outdoor air quality.[18] CBE worked to set up various sampling equipment in the interviewers’ homes, making the research more personal by having the interviewee feel comfortable with sharing their stories.[12] The research method also allowed the community to be more knowledgeable of where the chemicals around them came from. By becoming aware, they are able to get involved in environmental justice and begin voicing their opinion. CBE connected scientific research with the personal aspect of interviewing which reassures people that they are not only a ‘test subject’, but those that have an honest voice in the fight for justice.

Organizing California campaigns

Northern California

CBE uses their Community Based Participatory Research method in cities throughout California, focusing on northern and southern California.[19] They focus on Richmond, California and East Oakland to make sure both cities have the resourced needed to reduce pollution. Richmond is known for the Chevron Richmond Refinery, emitting various carcinogens to the communities that surround it.[20] Oakland is home to the Port of Oakland which emits particulate matter and various fumes from the diesel trucks that transport material to and from the location.[21]


  • Neptune Society is a crematorium that planned to operate in East Oakland, exposing homes, churches, and schools to toxic emissions.[22][23] The crematorium was trying to work without a permit that would force them to regulate the amount of the pollutants emitted. In order to prevent such facilities from operating without a permit, CBE created an Emergency Ordinance plan that would prevent any crematorium from opening without first receiving a Major Conditional Use Permit (CUP) from the city and ensure that they were being regulated under California Environmental Quality Act.[24][25] Not only did this stop Neptune Society from opening, but it also paved the way for future crematoriums from operating without harsh enforcement.[26]
  • CBE also has partnerships with community organizations like the Allen Temple Baptist Church to make sure that Oakland residents are aware of new projects that are being planned but also that they are able to participate.[27]
  • Diesel trucks play a main role in transporting material from the port of Oakland, exposing the communities adjacent to the route ways to pollutants.[28] CBE decided to investigate this and conducted a study to show the effects it has on the community.[29] Based on the report, East Oakland is the most affected by the fumes released by the trucks. CBE also fought for alternatives routes for trucks to take so that they can transport material avoiding going near vulnerable communities and minimizing their exposure.[29]
  • Oakland is often considered a food desert and CBE is working on increasing communities’ access to healthier food options.[30] They have created an alliance with Sowing Seeds program with several east Oakland groups that work on developing healthy gardens throughout Oakland.[31]
  • There are synergistic effects that can be more toxic that one effect alone, and CBE released a report supporting this. With pollution and lack to healthy food access, one of CBE's initiatives is to create Green Zones across the state, where CBE works to:[32]
  1. Stepped up regulation and enforcement to hold polluting industries accountable;
  2. A community voice in making land-use decisions;
  3. Land use policies that prevent new pollution projects from locating in these communities;
  4. Focused private and public investment in local economic development;
  5. Support for businesses in the Green Zone that want to “green up” operations;
  6. Greening these communities by creating more parks, community gardens and urban farms, and developing green businesses and jobs.[32]

Chevron Richmond refinery

CBE and two organizations conducted the research in the Richmond health survey and it showed that the chemical exposures in Richmond were extremely high.[33] When contrasted with Bolinas, as seen in the case study, Richmond's air pollution was far worse and this can be due to the Chevron Refinery. Chevron is the largest employer in town but as CBE research has shown, compared with the statewide average for all business activity oil refining creates ten times fewer jobs.[34]

  • In 2009, CBE and other local organizations filed a petition to have the Chevron Refinery's plan to expand looked at once more. Expanding its facility would have allowed them to process dirty crude oil, increasing greenhouse gases and toxic emissions to local communities.[35] The expansion was stopped because CBE argued that the Environmental Impact Statement violated the California Environmental Quality Act since it didn't take into consideration how this would increase the pollution in the city.[36]
  • Richmond came up with the General Plan 2030, and its goal is to become more sustainable and also develop healthy neighborhoods by 2030.[37] As part of this plan, Richmond's Planning Commission supported CBE's campaign, Less Pollution, More Jobs in 2012.[38] This campaign enforces regulation in facilities that emit toxic chemicals, and it would require them to use energy efficient equipment.[3]

Southern California

CBE works with various southern California communities especially the most polluted in the country. The Los Angeles area, Riverside communities, San Bernardino, and Orange County were ranked the smoggiest area in the nation in 2012 when it comes to air pollution.[39] CBE works with other cities in southern California like Wilmington, Huntington Park, and the various cities that surround the Interstate 710, to minimize the exposure from residents living near it. The Southern California offices are also well versed in community active with subgroups of youths joining CBE ranks to fight environmental injustice in their heavily impacted, people of color communities. Beginning in 1997, the sub-program Youth for Environmental Justice has extended in numbers over the past few years, displaying influence in California's capitol, Sacramento; to providing support to at the grassroot march in Paris 2016.

Huntington Park

  • Huntington Park is near the Los Angeles area and air pollution is not the only environmental problem because it has a lot of “brownfields”, which are abandoned or unused land used for activities that may have left the land contaminated.[40] As of now the EPA is funding this project and the city of Huntington Park, CBE, and local residents have begun the transformation from brownfield areas into sustainable areas.[41]

Wilmington Area

  • CBE and other community groups are working with the Wilmington/Carson area that is exposed to high amounts of local pollution.[42] This exposure puts those communities at risk for various diseases, mainly cardiovascular and respiratory ones.[43] These communities have proposed a policy, which is Clean up, Green Up, and hopes to reduce and prevent pollution throughout mainly affected communities.[44] This policy hopes to create Green Zones in these communities where the shift to green, sustainable communities will be encouraged.[45]
  • The Clean Up Green Up policy was approved in Los Angeles City Council in 2011, and since then CBE has been working alongside the community in order to make this policy provide stronger regulation to polluting facilities.[44]


  • The Interstate 710 freeway is 23 miles long and it runs from the Long Beach port to the City of Alhambra.[46] There has been planning to expand the I-710 in order to make it easier to transport to and from the port, but many oppose it because it will increase pollution leading to more exposure to the communities around it.[47][48] CBE worked with other organizations to create the Community Alternative 7 plan, which calls for improvements to be made along the I-710 to minimize pollution.[47][49]

Collaborations and coalitions

As an active statewide California environmental justice organization, CBE has built a number of strategic alliances over its 34 years of work to work with partners that share a common vision of building power in marginalized communities.[50] They are one of many organizations that make up the California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA), which organize in communities affected by pollution, working towards getting better protection for their community and environment.[51] Over 35 community-based organizations, including CBE, make up the Climate Justice Alliance (CJA) where they work towards the usage of sustainable energy in local communities.[50] Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (GGJ), is made of various community groups including CBE, working with communities of color faced with the most environmental pollution and toxics.[52] In regards to the expansion of the I-710, CBE and the Coalition for Environmental Health and Justice (CEHAJ) have worked together to create the Community Alternative 7 to improve the environmental conditions along I-710 corridor.[53] CBE focuses on the people employed by toxic facilities and works with Don't Waste LA, in order to create a proposal for community protection to further exposure. This proposal would require them to reduce toxic waste.[54] Green LA Coalition, Communities for a Better Environment, and other environmental justice groups, are focusing on LA in order to minimize the communities’ exposure to pollutants.[55] In the chevron case CBE also worked alongside Asian Pacific Environmental Network to have Chevron's permit reviewed.[36] Local Clean Energy Alliance is made up of 70 organizations that call for renewable energy, pollutant reduction, and green jobs in California.[56] It is also a member of the Bay Area Environmental Health Collaborative (BAEHC) working towards the reduction of pollution in vulnerable low income communities of color.[57] CBE and Ditching Dirty Diesel work to bring awareness and advocacy on the issue of health problems and diesel pollution correlation.[58] CBE also has a partnership with Richmond Equitable Development Initiative's to brainstorm activities which may increase the communities’ advocacy for a specific problem.[59] CBE has been a member of the Oakland Climate Action Coalition (OCAC), their efforts have allowed the inclusion of climate justice and health policies into the Oakland's Climate Action Plan.[50]

CBE in the media

In recent media, Communities for a Better Environment is mentioned as being an expert in environmental issues advocating policy, organizational strategies, and seen on the forefronts of current issues and cases. CBE lawyer Shana Lazero, seen as an expert in power plants in low-income communities;[60] CBE Attorney Maya Golden-Krasner, gives expertise on how agencies can help address needs of communities in toxic environments;[61] Andres Soto, CBE organizer, expresses his discontent with the permit process of BAAQMD in local Bay Area newspaper and is featured in YouTube's News Channel, The Nation's moving eight-minute documentary about living in Richmond as living and breathing in the shadow of Chevron. The documentary also highlights injustices found in California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB32) cap-and-trade policy also known as emission trading[62][63] Internationally, CBE is mentioned in UK news outlet, The Guardian, as a key leader with Asian Pacific Environmental Network in fighting refinery and industry expansion.[64] Local news station KTVU illustrates the tension as Richmond Chevron Refinery plans to expand as one of the largest refineries in California. Chevron's representative, says the one billion dollar expansion project will not increase crude oil, emissions, pollutants, health risk, or greenhouse gases. CBE's Greg Karras advocates on behalf of the community's skepticism for an informed review before moving forward in expansion.[65] CBE's opinion and expertise is often highlighted as dual representation experts in environmental fields and community members. CBE encourages community members to share their stories in the media and the general public so that their experiences can affect people within and from other communities.


CBE expresses urgency to implement and influence environmental justice in California. They are also committed to global participation in addressing present and future environmental concerns.[4] CBE Communications Coordinator, Steven Low, says the future of CBE will involve Urban Agriculture, Food Justice, and “Adaptation” as a response to Global Warming and Climate Change. CBE is sponsoring the Charge Ahead Campaign which will "help put one million electric cars, trucks and busses on California's roads, reducing air pollution, improving health and saving money".[66][67] Charge Ahead is sponsored by several organizations and designated $200 million from the states cap and trade auctions, whereby CBE advocates for low income communities of color's access to zero emission transportation.[68]


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