State and Federal Action on Environmental Justice in 2019: A Year of Milestones

December 16, 2019 | 5:52 pm
Photo: Hilton Kelley, CIDA
Adrienne Hollis
Former Contributor

We cannot close out 2019 without acknowledging some of this year’s many significant events focused on environmental justice, vulnerable populations and climate change. There have been many milestone events that should be acknowledged and/or celebrated, and to that end I have created a 3-part series focused on some of these actions.

This first post presents activities that have occurred at the federal and state levels.

On the hill

The year began with a January 15th press conference hosted by Representative Donald McEachin and Reverend Leo Woodberry and the Justice First Campaign. Entitled “Call for Bold Action on Environmental Justice & Climate Change on Dr. King’s 90th Birthday,” the conference was held at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.  Its purpose was to highlight climate change, weather-related disasters, energy, infrastructure, and environmental justice needs for policy action. The morning press conference was followed by an afternoon legislative briefing on Climate Change and Environmental Justice and a second briefing on Environmental Justice and Energy the next morning. Both briefings were held in the Members Room at the Library of Congress. This auspicious event heralded an active year of environmental justice-focused events.

Also on January 16th, Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva and the House Natural Resources Committee Democrats hosted a forum on the Disastrous Impacts of President Trump’s Proposed Border Wall to discuss the communities most affected, the environment, public lands, culture and wildlife, and the relationship between the proposed border wall and the longest government shutdown in this country’s history.

As you may recall, the shutdown had resulted from Congress’ failure to reach a budget deal precipitated by disagreements over funding for President Trump’s border wall between Mexico and the United States. The shutdown’s effect was felt all over the country, particularly by federal government employees and others who depend on their salaries to pay their bills and such, and the contractors who would not be compensated for the time period the shutdown continued. Nearly 10,000 companies contracted with agencies affected by the shutdown.

Later, in February, Senator Ed Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez released a fourteen-page resolution for the Green New Deal. The plan discussed “exploitation of the poor and people of color,” a just transition and other important and timely issues.

I was excited to see that representatives from environmental justice communities and environmental justice advocates were repeatedly tapped to participate in an historic number of congressional hearings this year.

On February 6th, the first House hearing of the Natural Resource Committee Democrats to focus on climate change in more than 8 years was held. In his opening statement, Chairman Grijalva described climate change as “one of the most urgent and pressing challenges of our time.” The hearing was titled “The Impacts and the Need to Act,” and kicked off a month of climate change hearings in the Committee and its Subcommittee. Those hearings were:

  • February 7th, Subcommittee Hearing on Water, Oceans and Wildlife
  • February 12th, Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources Hearing on Climate Change
  • February 12th, Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States Hearing on Climate Change
  • February 13th, Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Hearing on Climate Change
  • February 26th, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Hearing on Climate Change

Also on February 6th, the Environment and Climate Subcommittee held its first Committee Hearing on Climate Change in six years! The hearing, titled “Time for Action: Addressing the Environmental & Economic Effects of Climate Change,” was the first Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on climate change since 2013, when Republicans held a hearing critical of the Climate Action Plan.

The February 6th hearing relied on testimony from activists, scientists and religious leaders. Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. and Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee Chairman Paul Tonko were quoted as saying that “It is long past time for this Committee to begin seriously examining how climate change is affecting our communities, environment and economy, and take action to reduce its harmful effects. The science has been indisputably clear for years now–climate change is real and caused by human activity including burning fossil fuels. We are committed to combating climate change and standing up for those left to suffer in its wake. This will be the first of many hearings on this growing global crisis.”

In a 2018 letter the Alaskan Native people Gwich’in wrote to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, the Gwich’in wrote, “There is no reason to sacrifice the Arctic Refuge so that oil and gas industries continue business as usual with fossil fuel development that impacts climate change. Climate change is real, and environmental injustice is real. Climate change is real in the Arctic and will affect all Americans where they live. It is everyone’s backyard. We will be the first ones to be affected by the combination of climate change and fossil fuel exposure. Burning the fossil fuels extracted from the refuge will not only add to climate change in the Arctic, but everywhere.”

In March 2019, the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources met to discuss Congressman Jared Huffman’s “The Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act,” designed to sustain the Arctic–one of our natural treasures–against drilling and other extractive practices.

On April 22nd – Earth Day–U.S. Senators Tammy Duckworth, Cory Booker and Tom Carper announced the creation of the Senate’s first-ever Environmental Justice Caucus. The EJ Caucus’s purpose is “to call Congress’ attention to the many environmental justice issues affecting our nation.” The caucus was designed to help communities advocate for themselves with the federal government by providing expertise and assistance, generate legislation and organize hearings and events. It also coordinates with the House Environmental Justice Task Force, which consists of members from the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and the Asian Pacific American Caucus.

In July, Senator Cory Booker reintroduced the Environmental Justice Act in the Senate. Representative Raul Ruiz introduced companion legislation in the House. This historic legislation is designed to address environmental injustices imposed on communities of color, low income communities and indigenous communities in the United States. The Environmental Justice Act of 2019 (modified from the previously introduced Environmental Justice Act of 2017) contains a number of requirements, including codifying Executive Order 12898 signed by President Clinton in 1994, and strengthening legal protections for those affected by environmental injustices. This is particularly noteworthy given the current Administration’s obvious efforts to severely weaken or remove those protections!

In October, the Committee on Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties hearing entitled: Examining the Oil Industry’s Efforts to Suppress the Truth about Climate Change” was held. That hearing was designed to underscore the disproportionate effect of climate change on vulnerable populations and the continued and wide-spread climate change denial practiced by the oil industry.

In November, Chairman Raul Grijalva and Representative Donald McEachin released a discussion draft of their EJ bill. The bill would bolster the requirement for environmental reviews of major federal actions that affect equity communities and directly links EJ to climate change concerns. The draft bill “Environmental Justice For All Act” requires agencies to consider ALL impacts – cumulative, direct and indirect – potentially caused by agency action, along with any alternatives to action and mitigation measures and comes after ongoing discussions with local experts, community advocates and neighborhood leaders who are not historically provided an opportunity to participate in such discussions. The comment period for review of the draft bill ends on January 24, 2020. In the meantime, Chairman Grijalva and Representative McEachin’s offices are holding a series of conference calls designed to keep EJ stakeholders informed of relevant EJ developments within the Congress as part of their Environmental Justice Initiative The first such call was on December 9th and the next call is on January 13, 2020. Everyone is encouraged to participate in the conference calls and to submit comments on the draft EJ legislation.

Following reports of widespread violence and victimization of indigenous women and girls, the Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the United States heard testimony in November on HR4957, the Native American Child Protection Act, addressing missing and murdered indigenous women. One of the main purposes of HR4957 was to amend the Indian Child Protection and Family Violence Prevention Act.

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change held a hearing entitled “Building a 100 Percent Clean Economy: The Challenges Facing Frontline Communities.” The purpose of that hearing was to examine environmental justice and the impact of climate change and extreme weather events on legacy toxic exposures. In his opening statement, Chairman Paul Tonko stated that “Our efforts to confront the climate crisis must address historic environmental injustices. A just and equitable transition is necessary but recent assessments of ongoing federal environmental justice efforts show that much more work must be done. Low income communities, communities of color and indigenous peoples already suffer disproportionate harm from the effects of pollution and are often at the greatest risk from the consequences of climate change.” The remainder of his opening statement was very timely and discussed the need for stakeholder involvement and recognized the severe challenges that frontline and vulnerable communities are dealing with in the climate fight.

It is well known that many EJ leaders in the fight against the climate crisis are female, and that women and girls are one of the most at-risk populations when dealing with climate change. That is why, in my opinion, this hearing was so significant. In late November, the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis, led by Senator Tammy Duckworth, held a hearing which featured three women leading on the frontlines–Cecilia Martinez of CEED, Michele Roberts of EJHA, and Celeste Flores of Faith in Place & Clean Power Lake County.  Each speaker discussed the challenges their communities are facing and their vision for national policy.

State action

Given the actions taken by this administration to support profit over people, it is well known that the important work to address the adverse effects of climate change will continue to occur at the state and local levels.

In March, the California Coastal Commission adopted Environmental Justice Policies, with the support of diverse and growing allies, including Robert Garcia of the City Project in California. This policy is the Magna Carta of coastal justice in California and is a best practice for local, state, and federal agencies and others in and outside of California. Because the California Coastal Commission adopted an environmental justice policy that provides clear guidelines for development projects along the Pacific Coast, low-income communities and people of color will have greater access to California beaches than ever before.

In Wilmington, Delaware, the Wilmington City Council overwhelmingly passed a Cumulative Impacts Resolution, which addressed the need for the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control to consider multiple sources of pollution prior to granting permits to industry in EJ neighborhoods. This was a major win for the Delaware environmental justice community and can hopefully set a precedent for addressing cumulative impacts in all environmental justice communities.

These are just a few of the activities that have occurred at the federal and state level where communities are recognized as powerful allies in the fight against environmental injustices and climate change. It is always important to have input from ALL stakeholders when gathering information for policy development. “By Us, For Us” is an appropriate and meaningful statement from communities.

The next blog in this series takes a look at outstanding actions where activism and unity were at the forefront.