Environmental Justice Act of 2017 Aims to Up Protections for Communities and Make Polluters Pay
Sen. Cory Booker's Environmental Justice Act of 2017 is to Environmental Justice, what the Clean Air Act is to clean air.
Last week U.S. Senator Cory Booker was joined by local community leaders and advocates from across New Jersey and the nation in announcing a landmark bill that represents a major step toward eliminating environmental injustice. The Environmental Justice Act of 2017 requires federal agencies to address environmental justice through agency actions and permitting decisions, and strengthens legal protections against environmental injustice for communities of color, low-income communities, and indigenous communities.
“Many communities across the country are facing environmental and public health threats that for too long have gone unaddressed, seemingly only noticeable to those who deal with the effects on a daily basis. These communities are often communities of color or indigenous communities, and they tend to be low-income,” said Senator Booker.
“This is unacceptable and our bill is an important step in changing this reality. This legislation codifies and expands requirements that federal agencies mitigate impacts on vulnerable and underserved communities when making environmental decisions, and provides those communities with legal tools to protect their rights. We cannot have social justice or economic justice without environmental justice,” Senator Booker concluded.
The bill is the culmination of a months-long process of working with dozens of grassroots organizations across the country to craft a comprehensive bill that strengthens environmental justice protections for vulnerable communities.
The bill was informed by Booker’s experience dealing with environmental injustice as Newark’s mayor and recent trips he’s made to North Carolina , Louisiana, and Alabama, where he met with communities struggling with environmental injustices, such as open-air hog waste lagoons adjacent to people’s backyards, industrial garbage dumps that pervade neighborhoods, and exceedingly high concentrations of oil and gas refineries that residents suspect are leading to a wide array of chronic illnesses.
“In the forty years since the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act became law, the country has made great strides to protect our shared resources, but minority, low-income, and indigenous communities have continued to suffer disproportionate harm. I am proud to support the Environmental Justice Act of 2017, which will reduce racial and economic disparities in environmental policies,” said Rep. Payne.
"We must adopt substantive policies that will provide protections for communities Of Color and low-income communities from harmful pollution. This bill would help those communities and we hope everybody gives it the serious consideration it deserves,” said Dr. Nicky Sheats, Esq., New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance.
"As a Newark School Board member and a mother of 3 kids with asthma, it's clear environmental justice is a civil right. In my city and so many other EJ communities, there's too much lead in our drinking water, raw sewage in our waterways and diesel emissions sending kids to the ER. Those are the kind of cumulative impacts Senator Booker's legislation takes on,” said Kim Gaddy, Clean Water Action's Environmental Justice Organizing Director.
“For too long low income and communities of color in this country have suffered under the weight of cumulative, chronic and disproportionate pollution. This bill is a reminder of how critical it is to protect and restore these communities,” said Ana Baptista, Board Member, Ironbound Community Corporation.
The bill will be cosponsored in the Senate by U.S. Senators Tom Carper (D-DE), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Brian Schatz (D-HA), Tom Udall (D-NM), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Ed Markey. U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-CA) will introduce a companion bill in the House.
The Environmental Justice Act of 2017 is endorsed by more than 40 public health and environmental justice organizations.
Specifically, the bill does the following:
Codifies and expands the 1994 Executive Order on Environmental Justice. Executive Order 12898 focused federal attention on environmental and human health impacts of federal actions on minority and low-income communities. The Environmental Justice Act of 2017 would codify this order into law, protecting it from being revoked by future Presidents. It would also expand the EO by improving the public’s access to information from federal agencies charged with implementing the bill and creating more opportunities for the public to participate in the agencies’ decision-making process.
Codifies the existing National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) and environmental justice grant programs. The bill ensures that NEJAC will continue to convene and provide critical input on environmental justice issues to federal agencies, and that several important environmental justice grant programs, including Environmental Justice Small Grants and CARE grants, will continue to be implemented under federal law. Since these grant programs and NEJAC have never been Congressionally authorized, they are susceptible to being discontinued by future Administrations.
Establishes requirements for federal agencies to address environmental justice. The bill requires agencies to implement and update annually a strategy to address negative environmental and health impacts on communities of color, indigenous communities, and low income communities. In addition, the bill codifies CEQ (Council on Environmental Quality) guidance to assist federal agencies with their NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) procedures so that environmental justice concerns are effectively identified and addressed. The bill also codifies existing EPA guidance to enhance EPA’s consultations with Native American tribes in situations where tribal treaty rights may be affected by a proposed EPA action.
Requires consideration of cumulative impacts and persistent violations in federal or state permitting decisions under the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. Currently, Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act permitting decisions do not take into account an area’s cumulative pollutant levels when a permit for an individual facility is being issued or renewed. This can result in an exceedingly high concentration of polluting facilities in certain areas, such as the area between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana infamously known as Cancer Alley, where Senator Booker visited this summer. The bill also requires permitting authorities to consider a facility’s history of violations when deciding to issue or renew a permit.
Clarifies that communities impacted by events like the Flint water crisis may bring statutory claims for damages and common law claims in addition to requesting injunctive relief. Under current legal precedent, environmental justice communities are often prevented from bringing claims for damages. The bill would ensure that impacted communities can assert these claims.
Reinstates a private right of action for discriminatory practices under the Civil Rights Act. The bill overrules the Supreme Court decision in Alexander v. Sandoval and restores the right for individual citizens to bring actions under the Civil Rights Act against entities engaging in discriminatory practices that have a disparate impact. Currently citizens must rely upon federal agencies to bring such actions on their behalf.
On his environmental justice tour this summer, Senator Booker met Pastor Christopher L. Williams of Africatown’s historic Yorktown Missionary Baptist Church. During a community event, Pastor Williams told the crowd: “When I came to Yorktown in 2006, we must have had 20 funerals that year. That’s too many for one congregation. The next year saw no relief.”
“We’ve been burying people dying from cancer every year out here. It wasn’t uncommon for an entire family to have cancer. I’m working with a family now where the two daughters died, then the son died, then the father died, and now their mother has cancer. That’s unheard of in small areas like this.” Pastor Williams continued, “Our people are suffering not just from industry coming in and staying, but they’re suffering from industry that’s gone and left chemical contamination behind, as well.”
Senator Booker addressed the crowd by relating his experiences in Newark, New Jersey to those of the communities he had visited up to that point on this tour of Gulf South environmental justice hotspots. Booker has seen first-hand how low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately affected by poor air quality, tainted drinking water, and toxic Superfund sites. Half of all New Jerseyans live within three miles of a Superfund site and Newark, where Booker way mayor, has one of the highest rates of child asthma in the state.
As Mayor, Booker championed the cleanup of the polluted Passaic River (a Superfund site) and spearheaded the creation of community gardens that required planting in raised beds since the soil was too toxic to grow food for human consumption.
“When I was a Mayor trying to do urban farming to deal with our food deserts and prisoner re-entry [issues]. . . [T]he state literally told us that we couldn’t plant in the soil, because it was too toxic. We had to use planter boxes,” Booker told the crowd, which included many local elected officials.
US Senator Cory Booker encourages regional environmental justice advocates to continue their resistance saying, “In the larger cause of our country, this is not an Africatown issue, this is an American issue, and the people here are patriots. You are doing this out of a deeper love of country.” (MEJAC)
“The air was toxic,” he added. “We had children with epidemic blood lead levels and asthma rates, and it all just made me really aware.”
Booker’s environmental justice bill received enthusiastic and vocal support from a number of advocates, including the :
Cecilia Martinez, Executive Director. Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy, Minneapolis, Minnesota
“Some communities continue to bear the harmful consequences of industrial pollution. This bill will help to ensure that all communities, especially environmental justice communities will be healthy, safe and free from environmental harm.”
Vernon Haltom, executive director, Coal River Mountain Watch, Naoma, W.Va.
“From mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia to oil refining in Texas to uranium mining in the Southwest, polluting industries devastate the health of the communities least able to take a stand. This bill will support human rights for people traditionally ignored or oppressed by polluters.”
Michele Roberts, National Co-Coordinator, Environmental Justice Health Alliance
“This bill is much needed at this critical time when both public health and the environment are under attack. It will provide protection for communities that have been permitted to suffer the disproportionate burdens of toxic pollution.”
Robert Spiegel, Executive Director of the Edison Wetlands Association, Edison, NJ
"This bill by Senator Booker is a great start in addressing decades of environmental injustices. Environmental justice, clean water, clean air, and safe places to raise our families are not Republican or Democrat issues, they are human rights issues."
Avery Grant, Executive Director, Concerned Citizens of Long Branch, Long Branch, New Jersey
"The Concerned Citizens Coalition of Long Branch endorses The Environmental Justice Act of 2017 as we have suffered the devastating effects of a 17-acre contaminated site in our community. It is paramount that we prevent future occurrences of contamination."
This bill may be the clearest conceptualization of what Environmental Justice could look like codified into law. The passage of the Passing Environmental Justice Act of 2017 would be an enormous victory not just for vulnerable communities across this nation but for the whole nation. Making ‘polluters pay’ is a long-held bi-partisan idea rooted deep into other environmental laws, such as Superfund. By requiring those responsible for environmental damage clean up their own mess, it prevents the public from footing the bill down the road either directly or indirectly.
And by lifting up communities of color, indigenous peoples, and all those suffering from poverty, joblessness and propensity for illness by improving their environments, we can balance their unequal health outcomes and return the lost potential holding back them back.
Multiple studies have shown the outsized returns gained by remediating and redeveloping environmental contamination, which can raise property values more than a mile away.. When the negative elements weighing a community down are removed, the effect is to quite literally eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive with new investment. This double positive can be a tremendously revitalizing force that can transform blocks and even entire neighborhoods--which means that Environmental Justice is also a form of economic justice and equal opportunity policy.
It’s an idea whose time may have finally arrived, now that the redevelopment renaissance is shifting into a more advanced stage and opportunities to rebuild and revitalize are becoming plainly evident to policy makers. And with the public and private sector aligning in the redevelopment sphere, perhaps it’s possible policy makers can come together with policy that can begin to rebalance the environmental playing field for all Americans in earnest.
There are as many as a million brownfields in the U.S. or more, many clustered together in dense pockets of development and nearby human populations. There are 500,000 abandoned mines in the U.S. alone, many scattered throughout the America’s beautiful rural landscape. So, there’s plenty of work left to do.