Booker Reintroduces Sweeping Environmental Justice Bill

WASHINGTON, D.C.— U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) reintroduced sweeping legislation to address the environmental injustices that harm communities of color, low-income communities, and indigenous communities around the country. The Environmental Justice Act of 2021 would require federal agencies to mitigate environmental injustices through agency action and would strengthen the legal protections of those affected by environmental injustices. Congressman Dr. Raul Ruiz, M.D. (D-CA) introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives earlier this year.


“We cannot achieve economic justice or social justice in this country without simultaneously addressing environmental justice,” said Senator Booker. “Clean air and clean water shouldn’t be luxuries for the privileged – yet every day, communities of color, low income communities, and indigenous communities are disproportionately harmed by pollution. This reality has largely been ignored, and the affected communities have been left without the legal tools to protect their rights. The Environmental Justice Act is an important step in returning power to these communities.”  

“Having clean water to drink and clean air to breathe is not a privilege for the affluent few – it’s a right and common good for everyone,” said Dr. Ruiz. “My bill with Senator Booker, the Environmental Justice Act of 2021, will strengthen protections for vulnerable at-risk populations, give impacted communities the ability to hold big corporations and government accountable, and provide much-needed funds to mitigate and prevent future environmental hazards. Our legislation will take an important step forward in creating a healthier environment for all.”

Booker worked closely with dozens of grassroots organizations in New Jersey and across the country to craft this comprehensive bill that strengthens environmental justice protections for vulnerable communities. As part of that effort, in 2017, he visited important environmental justice communities in the Southeastern United States, including UniontownAlabama, where a massive landfill that accepts garbage from more than half the country was permitted to be placed in an overwhelmingly black community, despite local opposition; Lowndes County, Alabama, where residents struggle with nonexistent or ineffective sewage systems; and an 85-mile stretch of land between Baton Rouge and New OrleansLouisiana home to more than 150 industrial plants and oil refineries and infamously known as “Cancer Alley” because of an elevated incidence of cancer and inexplicable illnesses among its residents. In October 2017, Booker first introduced the Environmental Justice Act in the Senate. 


In 2019, Booker co-founded the Senate’s first-ever Environmental Justice Caucus along with Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Chairman Tom Carper (D-DE) to call attention to the many environmental justice issues affecting our nation. 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 helped lead the revitalization of over 15 acres of formerly off-limits riverfront property. He also spearheaded the creation of community gardens that required planting in raised beds since the soil was too toxic to grow food for human consumption.


The bill is cosponsored in the Senate by U.S. Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Chris Coons (D-DE), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Ed Markey (D-MA), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), and Ron Wyden (D-OR).


Specifically, the Environmental Justice Act 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 2019 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 populations and 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. 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.


The following advocates expressed their support for the Environmental Justice Act:


“Our nation should prioritize developing policies that will address persistent environmental justice issues, such as cumulative impacts, and yield measurable reductions in pollution in communities Of Color and low-income communities,” said Nicky Sheats, Ph.D., Esq., Director, Center for the Urban Environment of the John S. Watson Institute for Urban Policy and Research at Kean University, and member of the NJ Environmental Justice Alliance.


“The Environmental Justice Act provides frontline communities with additional tools in our fight to challenge big polluters that are harming people and ecosystems,” said Miya Yoshitani, Executive Director of Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), Climate Justice Alliance Board Member.


“Black, Brown, Indigenous, Asian and Pacific Islander, poor, and marginalized communities bear the brunt of a legacy of industrial pollution and environmental racism. A commitment to racial justice and equity demands we center the voices, rights and needs of frontline communities in our work for justice,” said Elizabeth Yeampierre, Executive Director of UPROSE, Co-Chair, Climate Justice Alliance Board of Directors.  


“Communities of color and low income communities i.e. environmental justice (EJ) communities have long been subjected to environmental injustices with little to no legal protections. Environmental laws are often inconsistently applied and more slowly enforced in EJ communities. The Environmental Justice Act of 2021 is an important step towards ensuring that EJ communities have avenues for redress,” said Ansha Zaman, Policy Coordinator, Center for Earth Energy & Democracy.”

Full text of the legislation can be viewed here.


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