Labor lawyers use enviros for union-only thuggery

With shameless abandon, lawyers and monied players are abusing the state's premier environmental law – the California Environmental Quality Act.

Lawmakers enacted CEQA in 1970 so citizens could identify development projects that posed an unacceptable environmental impact, and change them or challenge them. Over the years, various interests have hijacked this law for non-environmental purposes, and conservation groups have looked the other way.

All of us know about "neighborhood groups" that have exploited this law to prevent construction of affordable housing. Corporations have used CEQA in an attempt to stifle competition. An example is the Westfield Corp., the Australian owner of the Downtown Plaza mall, which is now suing the city over its approval of the railyard development, slated to bring new retail and housing to downtown.

Labor unions are an even larger abuser of CEQA. In recent years, labor groups have used environmental lawsuits, or the threat of such suits, to stop or slow down power plant construction, hospital expansions and housing developments. The unions' lawyers always seem to disappear once a developer has signed an agreement to hire only union labor.

Critics call this practice "greenmail," a polite term for legal extortion. The combined effect is to drive up the cost of new houses, hospital beds and other projects, with little or no benefit for the environment.

Consider the example of William Kopper, a former mayor of Davis. Kopper is suing, or threatening to sue, the railyard, the Greenbriar project in Natomas, Placer Vineyards and the Yuba Highlands project in Yuba County over alleged CEQA violations. Kopper won't disclose his clients, but his history is well known.

In the late 1990s, the Mid-Valley Trades Council hired Kopper to challenge the impacts of a proposed auto raceway in Yuba County. After the trades council reached agreement with the developer, Kopper dropped his objections. "I wasn't authorized to do any more work on it," Kopper told The Bee.

A few years ago, Kopper sued to halt Roseville's westward expansion. The lawsuit was dropped after developers signed a project labor agreement with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 340, the United Association Local 447 and the Sheet Metal Workers Local 162.

Oddly, environmental leaders in California have remained mum on this hijacking of environmental law. Their silence reflects a marriage of convenience between labor and environmental groups and, possibly, some financial entanglements.

For several years, a group called California Unions for Reliable Energy has used CEQA to slow or block power plants, including a geothermal plant in Imperial County. As it happens, CURE employs a law firm founded by Tom Adams, the current president of the California League of Conservation Voters.

Defenders of CEQA should be outraged. They also should be worried. As the abuses and misuses mount, they create ammunition for industry groups that would like to see California's landmark law revoked or seriously weakened. Greenmail hurts CEQA's credibility. Why are leading environmentalists complicit with their silence?


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