WASHINGTON — People of color and lower-income communities are often harder hit by the adverse effects of environmental hazards, so congressional Democrats are pushing legislation aimed at reducing the harm vulnerable communities face.
According to the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan, on average, people of color makeup 56% of the population living in neighborhoods with toxic release inventory facilities, compared with 30% elsewhere.
Such facilities are run by companies that must report how much of each toxic chemical is released into the environment and/or managed through recycling, energy recovery, and treatment.
These companies can include industries like mining, coal and petroleum production, manufacturing and tobacco production.
The Democrats’ bill aims to strengthen existing environmental protections, create programs for fair access to green spaces such as parks and establish grants to fund research, education and projects to address environmental public health issues.
Lawmakers are still working out the specifics of the source of funding.
The bill’s prospects are murky. There is no apparent Republican support, and Congress is likely to be in session for only a few more weeks this year.
The House bill was introduced by Reps. Donald McEachin, D-Va., and Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz. Senate sponsors include Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.
The bill aims to remedy environmental issues communities face through a mixture of new policies and increased funding. It authorizes $75 million annually for grants to support research, education, outreach, development, and implementation of projects to address environmental and public health issues.
The measure would require federal agencies to provide early and meaningful community involvement opportunities when proposing actions that affect an environmental justice community. The agencies would have to consider how new projects and permits could interact with already existing sources of pollution in the community.
Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a nonprofit Libertarian organization, said his group opposes the bill because current laws already provide the sort of protection the bill addresses.
“I would say that our (current) environmental laws are designed to balance these two things, environmental protection and economic prosperity,” he said. “So people who say, ‘We have to fight for environmental justice,’ I’m kind of puzzled by what it is that they want or think that they’re going to get.”
He also questioned the need for more federal involvement in promoting environmental policy.
“In my experience, when the federal government gets involved in local decisions about, ‘Do we want this here or do we not want it here?’The answer is usually, ‘No we don’t want it here and we don’t want it anywhere.’ And so that’s one of the things that’s destroyed jobs in various industries over the decades,” he said.
The bill would establish a Federal Energy Transition Economic Development Assistance Fund, with the purpose of supporting communities and workers as they transition away from fossil fuel-dependent economies.
The White House eliminated requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act to consider climate change before proceeding on projects like pipelines, highways, new factories and drilling permits on federal land just two weeks before the bill was introduced in the Senate. The administration has planned to roll back 100 environmental rules, with 68 of those reversals already completed.
Robert Bullard, urban planning and environmental policy professor at Texas Southern University and co-chair of the National Black Environmental Justice Network, described the concern at a recent House Natural Resources Committee hearing.
“Zip code is a potent predictor of health and well-being in the U.S. All communities and all zip codes are not created equal,” he said. “If a community happens to be poor, inhabited largely by people of color, or physically located on the wrong side of the tracks, levee, river, or highway, it’s likely to receive less protection.”