HANFORD -- Kings County opponents of California's proposed high-speed train system have established a new drumbeat to which they are marching: "environmental justice."
The phrase was repeated over and over to representatives of the California High-Speed Rail Authority and the Federal Railroad Administration during a five-hour public hearing Tuesday in Hanford.
The hearing was the second of three being held this week to receive comments on the authority's draft environmental report for the Fresno-Bakersfield section of the statewide rail system.
Residents and farmers from Hanford, Armona and Corcoran seized on the catchphrase in hopes of derailing the controversial train project after the state rail authority voted this month to adopt a new environmental justice policy.
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The policy's goal under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, is "to avoid, minimize or mitigate disproportionately high human health and environmental effects, including social and economic effects on minority and low-income populations."
The policy also declares that the authority will "emphasize the fair and meaningful involvement of all people" regardless of race, national origin or income in high-speed rail project planning and development.
Members of the grassroots opposition group Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability said that because the authority only recently adopted the policy, the agency's earlier actions failed to legitimately include Kings County in the planning process and discounted the train system's potential effects on low-income communities in the Valley.
One by one during the hearing's first three hours, more than two dozen speakers beseeched federal rail officials to pressure the state to withdraw the 30,000-page draft environmental report until, as Hanford farmer Helen Sullivan said, "the authority actually demonstrates its compliance with NEPA's environmental justice requirements instead of pretending on paper that it is complying."
Jeff Morales, the CEO of the state rail authority, said that even though the agency only adopted its formal environmental justice policy on Aug. 2, "it represents catching up with the process we've already had in place."
Morales said that both the Fresno-Bakersfield environmental report and the Merced-Fresno environmental report that was approved in May include sections that address environmental justice.
Authority representatives said they have held meetings up and down the Valley to reach out to residents, businesses and farmers. Still, many in Hanford insist that they have been omitted from the decision-making process. Some remain convinced that the rail line will have dramatic consequences for their farmland and their towns.
While rail opponents far outnumbered supporters Tuesday, at least two speakers voiced support for the system, including Kingsburg-area farmer Roger Christiansen.
Christiansen said he backed a new route option for the train line that bypasses Hanford on the west -- a new feature of the revised environmental report as an alternative to an east-of-Hanford bypass.
"Shorter, straighter, faster, cheaper," Christiansen said. "It's nearly four miles shorter, and that will be cheaper."
If you go
The California High-Speed Rail Authority's third public hearing on its revised environmental report for the Fresno-Bakersfield section is 3-8 p.m. today at the Fresno Convention Center Exhibit Hall, 848 M St. in Fresno.