Bill would strengthen protections for communities of color, low-income communities and indigenous communities
Culmination of months-long drafting process with input from dozens of grassroots orgs and visits to affected communities in North Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama
NEWARK, NJ – Today, U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) 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 Sen. 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,” Sen. 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.
Since his time as a tenant lawyer, City Council member, and mayor of Newark, 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. For example, Newark has one of the highest rates of child asthma in the state, and half of all New Jerseyans live within three miles of a Superfund site. As Mayor, Booker championed the cleanup of the polluted Passaic River, a federal 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.