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Marin City: A Case Study Highlighting Environmental Justice Laws Lack of Enforceability

Image Credit: Pi.1415926535, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

by Emily Luster*

Marin City, California is an unincorporated community in Marin County, California. Nestled within one of the wealthiest and whitest counties in the country, Marin City is predominately home to brown and Black individuals faced with stark environmental inequalities that are not adequately managed by federal and state environmental justice laws. Environmental justice laws and Executive Orders, while plenty, simply have no “teeth”, and their lack of enforcement is illustrated in the case study of Marin City. Rather than continuing to issue out Executive orders and laws, both states and the federal government need to pass an all-encompassing, enforceable statute to hold polluters, community members, and officials accountable. From here, local governments need to pass their own uniquely tailored, environmental legislation to battle their community’s particular needs. Without a hierarchy of legislation, nothing will change. 

According to a 2015 census, Marin County was the fifth richest county in the United States with an average gross income (AGI) of $158,753.[1] However, within Marin County lays Marin City. Marin City is now about 25% African American whereas Marin County’s overall African American population is only 2%. In 2019 Marin City’s median household income was $45,841.[2] In Marin County, Blacks and Hispanic children are two more times likely to experience poverty than their white counterparts with 16.3% of Marin City families living in poverty. Ross, one of the wealthiest towns in Marin, has a life expectancy of 94, whereas Marin City’s is 79.[3] Marin ranked 53rd out of 57 counties in income equality, the ratio between those with the highest incomes (above 80% of the median) and the lowest incomes (below 20% of the median).[4] Marin City is one of the only low-income housing offerings in Marin, tracing back to WWII and redlining policies which forced African Americans to stay put. Even worse, Marin County prides itself in being one of the most liberal and progressive places in the country, but when it comes to diversity issues, there is clear failure.[5]

Paired with the false pretense of “wokeness” are environmental inequalities in Marin City. Marin City is located at the base of the watershed between San Rafael and Sausalito, north of the Golden Gate headlands. This results in deeply eroded gullies, paved culverts, and inadequately sized pipes drain the watershed which cause chronic flooding events. [6]From this, sediment and debris often clog this infrastructure and have silted the singular retention basin, furthering the problem. There is also low-lying pinch points and limited transportation corridors, causing noise and air pollution. [7] Marin City is on the forefront of climate change with sea level rise already influencing their day-to-day life, disrupting daily commutes to work and emergency response times. This low-income community of color, one of the lowest contributors to carbon emissions, is the first impacted. [8]

While there are community-based measures put in place to educate Marin City to reduce carbon emissions and create action plans, the next step is still missing, a means of enforceability. Great initiatives such as the Marin Drawdown project are in place to hire community ambassadors, utilize an online storytelling training program, organize a daylong equity training workshop, host a town hall and allocate $25,500 for community climate project.[9] Likewise, incredible organizations such as Shore Up Marin exist. Shore Up Marin coordinates local community members to go door to door and share information on how to prepare for an emergency. These volunteers ask each resident specifically what individual needs may have to be met by local officials in the case of a flood. Marin City Community Service District and Shore Up Marin are now working together to build a Disaster Preparedness Council to help the community be ready for floods, earthquakes, and disasters.[10] While helpful, these organizations are more reactive than proactive because there are no laws they can point to for accountability. 

There is no environmental justice law that attorneys and organizations can go to that directly apply to a community of color that they can take to court. Instead, attorneys are forced to find creative ways to use administrative procedures such as the Civil Rights Act, Fair Housing Act and Clean Water Act, apply an environmental lens to these statutes, and work to apply them to communities of color.[11] This makes the battle to be heard expensive and difficult. 

For instance, Biden’s Executive Order 14008 of January 27, 2021 discusses a Climate Change “Task Force” which is in charge of facilitating “planning and implementation of key Federal actions to reduce climate pollution, increase resilience to the impacts of climate change; protect public health; conserve our lands, waters, oceans biodiversity, deliver environmental justice, and spur well-paying union jobs and economic growth”. [12] It is unclear how a Task Force will be able to dismantle environmental racism while also focusing on the other pertinent issues listed. Furthermore, each environmental justice community has its own distinctive, intersectional issues that plague it, ranging from old redlining policies, “NIMBY” protests and lack of awareness. How is Biden’s Executive Order going to remotely touch Marin City? 

Biden’s executive order closely resembles Clinton’s Executive Order 12898: Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations”.[13] Passed over 26 years ago, this executive order is much more symbolic than anything. Its declarations focus on definitions and processes instead of implementation, without any accountability or enforceability metrics.

These federal issues are also felt on the state level. California is a leader of Environmental Justice Laws and, in 2018, California did become the first state to pass a law requiring local governments to add an environmental justice element if they update two or more aspects of their general plans.[14] While positive, the law does not include any enforcement measures or fines. The state can develop guidelines for communities, but they have no regulatory authority to enforce them. Similar to the federal government, the state government has the right intentions but is lacking the binding measures that we need.  

Marin City is just one of the thousands of examples of low-income, minority communities that but don’t have access to the essential tool kit of enforceability. If Marin City is in the “best possible environment” for change and can’t do anything, then how will other communities fair? The federal, state, and local governments have the right notion in mind but are missing the vital next step, enforceability. Communities like Marin City are doing the best they can with reactive measures but until accountability standards are implemented there will be no long lasting or proactive change. 

*Emily Luster is a Junior Editor with MJEAL. They are a member of the class of 2023.


[1] Maggie Fusek, Marin County Among Top 5 Richest in U.S.: Time, Patch (Apr 24, 2017, 6:02 PM), https://patch.com/california/millvalley/marin-county-among-top-5-richest-u-s-time

[2] California Demographics by Cubit, https://www.california-demographics.com/marin-city-demographics#:~:text=Median%20Income,City%20families%20live%20in%20poverty . (last visited Mar 21, 2021). 

[3] Dr. Matthew Willis, County of Marin-News Releases-County Health Rankings, Marin County (Mar 14, 2018), https://www.marincounty.org/main/county-press-releases/press-releases/2018/hhs-healthranx-031418

[4] Id. 

[5] Alex Madison, Marin County May be the Fakest ‘Woke’ Place in America, the Bold Italic (Feb 12, 2021), https://thebolditalic.com/marin-county-may-be-the-fakest-woke-place-in-america-cdb290c7f805.

[6] Resilient Bay Area, Marin City. http://www.resilientbayarea.org/marincity (last visited Mar. 21, 2021).

[7] Id.

[8] Lorenzo Morotti, Marin’s marginalized communities drawn into climate change action plan, Marin Independent Journal (Dec 20, 2019, 8:27 PM), https://www.marinij.com/2019/12/20/marins-marginalized-communities-drawn-into-climate-change-action-plan/.

[9] Id.

[10] US Water Alliance. (http://uswateralliance.org/organization/shore-marin) (last visited Apr. 20, 2021). 

[11] Jeremy Orr, Senior Attorney NRDC, Michigan Law Zoom Discussion: Dismantling Environmental Racism in the Midwest (Mar. 17, 2021). 

[12] Exec. Order No. 14008, 86 Fed. Reg. 7619 (Feb. 2, 2021). 

[13] Exec. Order No. 12898, 59 Fed. Reg. 32 (Feb. 16, 1994). 

[14] Emily C. Dooley, Environmental Justice Becomes a Part of California City Planning, Bloomberg Law (Aug. 27, 2020), https://news.bloomberglaw.com/environment-and-energy/environmental-justice-becomes-part-of-california-city-planning.

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