Why Congress Should Pass the A. Donald McEachin Environmental Justice for All Act

May 2, 2023 | 3:07 pm
pickup basketball in front of smokestacksAP Photo/David Goldman
Darya Minovi
Senior Analyst

In March, one of the most comprehensive bills for advancing environmental justice was reintroduced in the US House and Senate: the A. Donald McEachin Environmental Justice for All Act (EJ for All Act). The bill, introduced in the House by Reps. Raúl Grijalva and Barbara Lee, and Sens. Cory Booker and Tammy Duckworth on the Senate side, is named in honor of the late Rep. Donald McEachin, who co-led the inception of this legislation starting in 2018 and was a fierce champion for environmental justice all his life.

Rep. McEachin, who passed away last November, was a lifelong advocate for social and environmental justice in my home state of Virginia. I had a small glimpse into this work in early 2022 when his office reached out to me after reading a report I co-authored on the risk of chemical spills from storage tanks in Virginia. That was his way as a political leader: working tirelessly and proactively to make connections and fight to ensure everyone had the right to a safe and healthy environment.

According to scholar and advocate Dr. Robert Bullard, “environmental justice embraces the principle that all people and communities have a right to equal protection and equal enforcement of environmental laws and regulations.” Seminal research by Dr. Bullard and key environmental justice leaders, such as Dr. Beverly Wright, Vernice Miller-Travis, and Peggy Shepard, among others, shows that Black and brown communities are disproportionately exposed to and harmed by pollution. A myriad of studies since have validated these findings across a number of exposures, such as soot air pollution (PM2.5 or fine particulate matter), transportation-related air pollution, drinking water violations, and urban heat islands. This bill aims to alleviate these disproportionate exposures and begin to remedy decades of systemic harm.

EJ for All Act showcases the importance of process

The historic legislation is a model not only because of the policies it contains, but also for the process of developing legislation by the people, for the people. The EJ for All Act was developed through a multi-year inclusive and transparent process built around the lived experiences of communities at the frontlines of disproportionately high pollution exposure and systemic disinvestment.

The latest iteration of the bill reflects input from public sessions and feedback from a Community Input Tour held last year, where Reps. Grijalva and McEachin traveled to environmental justice communities across the country, from Queens to New Orleans and Tucson. Reps. Grijalva and McEachin worked to center the voices and concerns of communities affected by environmental injustices during all stages of the legislative drafting process, an effort in equity and inclusion that is rarely seen during the process of drafting a bill. The House Committee on Natural Resources even released draft text of the legislation for public comment, providing the opportunity for the public to submit line-by-line comments. In solidarity with environmental justice leaders and communities, UCS has been a supporter of this bill since its inception.

The legislation was introduced with an accompanying Community Impacts Report, which details how the legislation could have prevented, or can address, past environmental injustices. There is also a Statement of Principles outlining how the legislation must, for example, ensure that federal and state regulatory decisionmaking reflect “on-the-ground realities and cumulative impacts” and ensure the National Environmental Policy Act “promotes environmental justice, health equity, and environmental quality.”

What will the EJ for All Act do?

The bill faces significant challenges in the House, with several lawmakers having a history of undermining efforts to help revitalize communities facing environmental justice concerns. Polluters exert dominant influence in the current Congress, resulting in legislation like H.R. 1, the so-called Lower Energy Costs Act, which seeks to curtail public engagement in permitting new energy projects, rather than expanding it.

If passed, however, the EJ for All Act could catalyze a transformational shift in how pollution is regulated, how environmental regulations are enforced, and how affected communities are able to participate in regulatory decisionmaking. Among its provisions, the legislation will:

  • Require consideration of cumulative impacts in permitting decisions under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. This would be a huge step forward in requiring federal and state agencies to consider the impacts of multiple, compounding environmental and social stressors in a community when making permitting decisions, rather than using a facility-by-facility approach.
  • Enhance accountability for regulatory decisionmaking and polluters, such as by requiring federal agencies to bring affected communities—including Tribal representation—into the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) process. NEPA requires federal agencies to assess environmental impacts before issuing permits for major infrastructure projects, so efforts to enhance public participation could have immense implications for those previously left out of the process.
  • Strengthen the Civil Rights Act and codify into law President Clinton’s Executive Order (EO) 12898 that directed federal agencies to develop environmental justice strategies. Clinton’s order was never fully implemented and is not legally enforceable, so codifying it would provide necessary “teeth” and protect it from being revoked in future administrations.
  • Fund environmental justice grant programs and research grants to investigate toxic personal and childcare products, and establish a Federal Energy Transition Economic Development Assistance Fund using revenues from fees imposed on oil, gas, and coal companies. The latter would invest in a just energy transition, funding job training programs in states that have historically depended on fossil fuel extraction.
  • Expand equitable access to parks and outdoor recreation, prioritizing opportunities that benefit urban communities.

Passing the EJ for All Act would mark a major step forward in alleviating a legacy of environmental harm and systemic racism. It would also elevate and point the way toward better participatory processes for developing legislation. Despite political challenges to passing the bill, a strong and growing coalition of grassroots, environmental justice, public health, and science advocacy organizations are standing together in support of the EJ for All Act.  Even prior to its passage, the legislation has already set a new standard for transparency and inclusion, provided a powerful organizing vehicle for environmental justice advocates, and fostered new levels of communication and trust.