Environmental Justice for All

Low income communities, and communities of color have borne the brunt of air and water pollution, toxic waste dumping, and other environmental degradation for decades. These communities do not have the resources to fight against polluters that wealthier and white communities have at their disposal. If you want to build a refinery, dump sludge from a mining operation, start a confined area feedlot operation, or manufacture industrial chemicals where do you think it will be easier for you to get approval, and where would regulatory enforcement be laxer, in a rich white neighborhood, or a poor black one?

That’s because, as Hop Hopkins tells us, communities of color, and the people who live in them have been treated as disposable for a long time.

Just think of Cancer Alley in Louisiana. Most of the towns there are majority Black, and nowadays they call it Death Alley, because so many Black folks have died from the poison that drives our extractive economy. Or think of the situation in the Navajo Nation, where uranium mines poisoned the wells and the groundwater and coal plants for decades poisoned the air. Or consider the South Side of Chicago, where I used to live, which for years was a dumping ground of petroleum coke (a fossil fuel byproduct) and where residents are still struggling against pollution-related diseases.

The Environmental Justice For All Act is an attempt to address the disparities built into our economic and political system. The bill, recently introduced in congress has the support of the National Resources Defense Council, EarthJustice, and many other environmental groups. Earthjustice explains

This bill offers a series of concrete measures aimed to address environmental injustice. It is the culmination of years of research and fact gathering as well as a robust and inclusive process spearheaded by environmental justice leaders who represent some of the very communities this bill is meant to support. If passed and enforced properly, it would significantly strengthen environmental protection for communities that face disproportionate pollution burdens.

Among the provisions of the bill is a requirement that federal agencies consider the cumulative impact in Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act permitting decisions.

The failure to consider cumulative impacts is a longstanding and egregious oversight in environmental regulation and policymaking. It ignores the lived reality of frontline communities, who often face multiple environmental threats at once, alongside social stressors such as racial discrimination, historical trauma, and reduced access to material resources. A cumulative impacts burden, such as the one faced by West Virginia communities and described by Kathy Ferguson, Interim Executive Director of Our Future West Virginia, is unfortunately not unique: “Communities from around the state have endured toxic chemical explosions and leaks into our air, hazardous runoff from coal mining and fracking into our waterways, faulty corrosive tanks that lead to a critical contamination of our water supply, grounds filled with contaminants like fly ash and other seeping poisons. These occurrences are on top of the steady drip of routine hazardous emissions and ‘allowable’ pollution.”

The science shows that the risks from environmental pollution are heightened when a person or community faces multiple threats and stressors. The EJ for All Act’s proposal to account for cumulative impacts in CAA and CWA permitting is fundamental to reducing inequities and ensuring that additional burdens are not heaped upon those already experiencing disproportionate environmental and social vulnerability.

I hope this bill and any congressional debates increase awareness of this issue, but frankly I think the odds of it passing are pretty poor. There is a good chance that it could pass the house, but the senate? Unlikely. In fact, the bill is working against some large forces. Many advocates instead are calling for a streamlined and expedited permitting process. One particular target right now is the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Often the calls for weakening the regulations are made with a pro-environment spin, such as improved infill, high density, or affordable housing. or from organizations such as the Sierra Club that want to build more solar and wind farms.

Unfortunately, if laws and regulations are weakened, EVEN FOR GOOD REASON, we can assume industry will use the opportunity to push through projects which cause pollution and disproportionate impact on lower income communities.

Here’s hoping that the Environmental Justice for All act is a step in the right direction

Leave a Reply