New Legislation Addresses Legacies of Pollution in Environmental Justice Communities

June 11, 2021
US National Archives
Jacob Carter
Senior Scientist

The Environmental Justice Legacy Pollution Cleanup Act of 2021 was introduced today by Senator Cory Booker and Congressman Donald McEachin. The legislation will help address pollution that has been haunting environmental justice communities for decades. If passed, the bill would invest $200 billion to clean up legacy pollution across the country.

The Environmental Justice Legacy Pollution Cleanup Act of 2021 is a step in the right direction, particularly during a time when environmental justice communities are not only dealing with legacies of pollution but also inequities surrounding the novel coronavirus and climate change.  

A history of pollution

Environmental justice communities (Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other communities of color, low-income, and marginalized communities) have fought against pollution for decades. While some progress has been made, there are still many communities continuing to fight for environmental justice across the country. It is a fight for clean air, access to clean drinking water, and a clean and safe place to live, work, and play.

These long-standing inequities are the result of factors stemming from systemic racism including segregation, redlining, voter disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, inadequate enforcement of environmental protections, siting of industrial facilities and mining operations, a lack of access to health care centers, and other public health protections. Indeed, there is no single culprit, nor any one government action that can explain the long-term injustices that underserved communities have faced, and many actions taken in the past are still affecting communities today.

Take, for example, communities living near the Columbia Slough in Portland, Oregon. The narrow waterway has long been polluted, but according to researchers speaking with community members in 1999, some in the community recall the slough being cleaner in the 1900s before business interests superseded those of the communities located nearby.

During the height of the environmental movement in the 1970s, the North Portland Committee held a conference that brought together the communities of the Columbia Slough and local agencies to implement environmental regulations for the area. The residents at the conference voiced concerns regarding their water and air quality and made specific requests of agencies to eliminate a landfill in the area and to avoid zoning areas near the Columbia Slough for polluting industries. The communities’ requests were ignored: siting permits continued to be granted to polluting industries, and the landfill was never removed. The Columbia Slough remains an area heavily polluted by toxins putting the health of its citizens at risk.

Pollution harms today

The science is clear – environmental justice communities are disproportionately affected by sources of pollution and bear a greater burden than any other community. Research that has been conducted to date, much of it spearheaded by and with communities, provides some staggering evidence. Here is a smattering of results from studies that show how underserved communities are affected by legacies of pollution:

Cleanup is needed now

Black, Latinx, Indigenous, other communities of color, as well as, low-income, and other marginalized communities, have been disproportionately impacted by pollution for decades. An unprecedented frequency of attacks on science-based decisions by the prior administration and diminished resources for underserved communities intensified long-standing risks from pollution.

Additionally, funding for cleanup actions are in decline. For example, appropriations for the Superfund program have decreased more than a billion dollars from 1999-2020 and cleanups of the extremely hazardous sites have thus slowed, particularly in underserved communities. Without adequate resources or prioritization, pollution will continue to impact the people living in underserved communities in the US – their health, their culture, and their lives are at-risk.

Providing adequate resources to clean up legacy pollution is just the first step – the Biden-Harris administration will need to make such cleanups a priority. And even if the resources are provided and cleanups are prioritized in environmental justice communities, hundreds of years of historic injustices will not be erased overnight. Some superfund sites are not fully cleaned up for decades now, and the effects of climate change will likely make cleanup efforts more difficult. We cannot wait any longer – Congress should move swiftly to pass this legislation and move us on a path to right these historic injustices.