A house sits half submerged in flood water after a storm
Widespread flooding submerges property in March 2023 near Corcoran, California. (David McNew/Getty Images)
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As the nation’s most populous state, California has long influenced environmental-health protections outside its own borders. And its environmental challenges sound all too familiar in other states, from extreme heat and flooding to lead contamination and air pollution.

Now its environmental-protection agency has a secretary with a history of advocating on behalf of vulnerable communities hit hardest by those problems, and the first Latina in that role.

The California State Senate confirmed Yana Garcia as head of CalEPA in March. She was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last summer. 

Garcia, 38, grew up in East Oakland. Her previous experience includes stints at the California Department of Justice and CalEPA and, before that, working as an attorney at the environmental law organization Earthjustice and at Communities for a Better Environment, a California nonprofit that works to empower communities of color and low-income residents to achieve environmental health and justice. 

The Center for Public Integrity spoke with Garcia recently about protecting the environment for people’s health in a challenging era. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. You were appointed CalEPA secretary last August by Gov. Gavin Newsom and are the first Latina in the history of the California environmental agency to lead it. Can you talk about your background, where you grew up, and what inspired you to pursue a career tackling environmental issues?

I grew up in Oakland, California. I’m a second generation Chicana. My parents are from Los Angeles. My family is from Mexico. They’re from Puebla and Guanajuato. 

I didn’t necessarily grow up with an understanding of environmental injustice. Although my mom, an Angelena, struggled with asthma her whole life, including into adulthood — and it improved as she lived more years in the Bay Area — it wasn’t until later that I understood that that was a product of her environmental conditions, having grown up in Boyle Heights [a neighborhood hemmed in by polluting freeways]. But also at that time, air quality in Los Angeles was pretty bad. 

I’m an attorney by training, and I spent some time prior to law school working on Native American reservations with Indigenous communities — from Minnesota to Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah — focused on developing renewable energy projects, transitioning Indigenous communities dependent on fossil fuel-based economies into renewable energy economies under the leadership of a really brilliant activist named Winona LaDuke for the White Earth Land Recovery Project and Honor the Earth

As an attorney, I focused on civil rights and immigration, so I ended up going into law school and then thinking I may not come out the other side necessarily focusing on environmental issues. I got really into unlawful-detention issues, issues around police brutality cases … and really was taken by the sort of plethora of issues affecting undocumented communities and vulnerable communities, particularly around the border region. And then found my way back to California and worked for Communities for a Better Environment. … I focused there on issues that I’ve now come full circle to address in my current role — issues like [lead contamination from] Exide, land-use issues, toxics, etc., before I went on to work at Earthjustice.

Q. Were there issues growing up that you saw facing residents, neighbors, family members, people that you knew, that triggered a concern, or that inspired you going down this path tackling environmental issues as an attorney?

I actually lived in Oaxaca for a couple of years as a kid. My dad won a Fulbright scholarship, and so we went down and lived in Oaxaca, Mexico, for two years. Oaxaca is extraordinarily diverse in terms of its Indigenous communities in the state, and at the time there was a lot of movement around Indigenous rights both in Oaxaca but really in Chiapas as well. The famous Zapatista movement was really growing, and so I was sort of contextually aware of this need to preserve access to clean air, clean water and land. 

I also had a lot of family in a very small town … called Ocotepec [in the state of Puebla, Mexico], where much of my family was reliant on corn production. … They were really hit hard by [the trade agreement] NAFTA, and it really affected access to the basics, access to a safe and healthy food supply. … So all of those things influenced my approach, my perspective, that drove me to want to focus on people’s access to clean air, clean water, and healthy landscapes and food systems.

Yana Garcia, head of the California Environmental Protection Agency, speaks at a Coalition for Clean Air event. (Photo courtesy of CalEPA)

Q. You’ve described California as being on the “front lines of climate change,” and that you see centering your work — to protect the environment and safeguard public health — on environmental justice as “more critical than ever.” Can you elaborate what it means to center your work this way, and how that will translate to residents on the ground in these frontline communities, whether it’s those living on the fenceline of factories or those hardest hit by extreme weather, pollution or the degradation of the environment?   

As a regulator within CalEPA and across the [California] Air Resources Board, I’m really focused on making sure that our climate strategies prioritize health benefits. And we do that by ensuring that we’re prioritizing [improvement in] those industries and those sources where we are seeing the heaviest health impacts. 

For example, trucks, heavy-duty vehicles, port equipment — those sources that affect frontline communities who are most exposed to the emissions from freight corridors, and both our seaports but also our inland ports, where warehouse development and logistic centers are growing. So that’s a primary focus of ours. 

We’re really focused on reducing ozone and other criteria pollutants to improve health. We also work in partnership with the air districts to do just that. So, in addition to having a regional approach to attaining national ambient air quality standards, we’re also looking at what is affecting neighborhoods almost block by block, and how we can prioritize the sources that are of heaviest concern … to people living there. 

And doing that in partnership with the air district to ensure that we’re taking our enforcement protocols and policies seriously, that we’re providing updated, transparent, often real-time information, that we’re holding ourselves accountable to showing communities the receipts that we have from our enforcement work. That means the penalties we’ve levied. That means the improvements we’re able to achieve. 

And I share all this well knowing that we have a lot of work to do, we still have a lot of progress to make. We still have to achieve attainment in various air quality basins across our state, and when we do that, that will inevitably, I think, yield health benefits. And so health improvements and the reduction of air pollution has to be like a north star in our climate work. 

I think the other thing that we’re very aware of in our climate strategies, and that I hold front of mind as I move forward in this work as secretary, is ensuring that our pathway to carbon neutrality is aggressive in terms of the deployment of zero-emission vehicles and renewable infrastructure, etc., but is also cognizant of … impacts that we may see along the way. 

So ensuring, for example, that our carbon-neutral future, which is not necessarily in and of itself a waste-neutral future, is one that also moves forward recognizing the waste impacts of things like batteries. That we’re building in, to the extent that we’re able to, secondary uses for electric vehicles. That we are also honoring the need to continue to use, in an environmentally sustainable and health-sustainable manner, combustion vehicles until the end of their life, since that is something that so many folks, including many low-income folks, will likely do. In addition to, of course, stimulating markets for affordable electric vehicles.  

Q. You were sworn into office last September at a time when California was experiencing extreme heat. We’ve had years of record-breaking wildfires, and now we’re in the midst of record rainfall as communities flood and continue to face risks from these storms, including the potential to reach the all-time record for snowpack. Can you talk about these first few months in office, and how you balance your agency’s response to both immediate disasters versus your long-term work to protect people and the environment from global warming? 

It is challenging to do so. I think it’s important that we all recognize that, because in many ways we are all in uncharted waters. The IPCC has some hopeful news for us this week, news that solidifies the need to move forward with our commitment to rapidly accelerating emission reductions and a financial commitment to ensuring that that takes place.

I think that while that moves forward, we’re also at a crossroads in which we have to invest in our resilience capacity to continue to handle these extreme weather events and climate disasters that are coming. And so I think the best way that we can continue to adapt to this kind of shifting between the long-term vision and staying the course, and needing to make these very quick turnaround decisions, is to remain flexible and nimble — as nimble as we possibly can. 

Q. You’re an environmental attorney who has worked to hold polluting industries accountable, focusing on environmental justice, civil rights, land use, and chemicals, amongst other issues that impact vulnerable communities. You have also worked to protect California communities from environmental harm via your legal work in the community nonprofit sphere. How have those experiences as an attorney informed your work today?

As an advocate I often filed lawsuits against government agencies … for various flaws in their decision-making. So I’d say, first and foremost, that the experience as an attorney makes me keenly focused on the basis for our decisions, and committed deeply to ensuring that our decisions are based on the best available science, and that we are able to hold paramount health and safety and environmental protections. …

Diverse perspectives make better decision-making, make better implementation generally. So I think maintaining an open door to all ideas and all feedback and understanding how our decisions, how our regulatory work, is being felt on the ground is really important. 

I’ve come at that from the perspective in the past, of making sure that we’re providing seats at the table for folks who have been left out … and that remains principally important to me.

Q. In Southern California, we’ve seen how the failure of state regulatory agencies to hold accountable one industrial facility, the Exide battery recycling facility in Los Angeles, resulted in residents in largely Latino neighborhoods being exposed for years to toxic lead emissions. What can the state do to ensure that situations like Exide don’t happen again, and what can be done to strengthen existing regulations to  hold industries accountable while they are still operating?

So first and foremost, ensuring that we have financial assurances that are adequate to protect against these types of post-closure financial liabilities that, frankly, the state has been left holding the bag on, but in many ways was created by a variety of factors. Yes, including state agency activity, as in we could have done and should have done a better job of regulating this entity. 

But also, that was created by the fact that they weren’t really required to provide a lot more in the way of financial assurances and were unfortunately able to avail themselves of protection from the bankruptcy courts and proceedings, leaving taxpayers holding the bag and the state holding the bag. 

So wanting to avoid that, DTSC is reviewing our financial assurances across the board, and part of the reform package that was passed a couple of years ago includes more robust financial assurances for any and all operating facilities. 

I think also strengthening permitting requirements that consider the toxicity of potential media that could be released by the operation of a facility … and the cumulative health and pollution burdens that exist there. … 

And then finally, on the enforcement piece, the operation of the Exide facility fell into a lot of holes in our enforcement approach and really highlighted why well-coordinated enforcement is so important. … We could have seen likely more inspections, more coordinated inspections probably, more levying of fines that could have deterred the kind of activity that led to the extent of contamination that we now have to deal with.

Q. There is evidence gathered by researchers at USC and Occidental College showing that the clean up process of the contaminated soil of homes surrounding Exide has been problematic. The researchers gathered soil samples showing levels that are alarming — above the threshold considered especially dangerous for young children. What can be done to prevent further exposure to toxic lead in the soil as the Exide clean-up process proceeds? 

Right now we’re at an interesting place with the Exide cleanup process in the sense that we are redrafting our bid solicitation for contractors moving forward. We are really at a fluctuation point in terms of needing to consider the feedback that we’ve received for years now on the cleanup. 

The fact is, community residents have been expressing their concern, voicing their concern around the approach where DTSC took the position that what they were doing was most health-protective by prioritizing the homes with the highest level of lead contamination. But they were doing that in a sort of scattered manner, which from the residents’ standpoint, may have, could have exposed residents nearby to additional contamination. 

So one of the things we’re doing moving forward is adopting a sector based approach where we are doing block by block as opposed to hitting the hotspots. And that, I think, will be really important. We also need to make sure that we’re conducting confirmation sampling as a part of our clean up process. Certainly we’ve done that before, but it likely needs to be more comprehensive. 

I think we can all agree the data that came out of USC,  the summary of their findings, is disturbing to all of us. I read it and thought: We need to figure out how to do better here. I think we all did. So taking stock of what we can do through our cleanup procedures, and understanding that the risks with lead are significant, particularly for young children and pregnant women — so we want to make sure that we’re accounting for that in the households that we clean. … 

And ensuring that we have a good, clear path for where that soil is going, where the lead contaminated soil will end up. Because the last thing we want is to expose another community to lead-contaminated soil from the community around Exide.

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Yvette is a senior reporter at the Center for Public Integrity covering inequality in economic and social...