Booker Reintroduces Sweeping Environmental Justice Bill
WASHINGTON, D.C.— U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, 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 2019 would require federal agencies to mitigate environmental injustices through agency action and would strengthen the legal protections of those affected by environmental injustices. U.S. Representative Raul Ruiz (D-CA) introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives.
"We cannot achieve economic justice or social justice in this country without simultaneously addressing environmental justice,” Senator Booker said. “Clean air and clean water shouldn’t be luxuries for the privileged, yet every day, communities of color, low income communities, and indigenous communities disproportionately face environmental hazards and harmful pollutants. 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 of 2019 is an important first step in returning power to these communities.”
“As an emergency medicine physician, I have treated children from low-income and minority communities struggling with asthma caused by air pollution. As a father, I understand the anxiety of parents learning that toxic chemicals in their water threaten their children’s health. These injustices must end,” Congressman Raul Ruiz said.“That’s why I am joining Senator Booker to introduce the bicameral and landmark Environmental Justice Act, legislation that strengthens protections for vulnerable populations, gives impacted communities the ability to hold big corporations and government accountable, and provides the funds needed to mitigate and prevent future instances of environmental injustice. Everyone – no matter where they live – should have a safe and healthy environment.”
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 Uniontown, Alabama, 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 Orleans, Louisiana 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.
Earlier this year, Booker co-founded the Senate’s first-ever Environmental Justice Caucus 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 Kamala Harris (D-CA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ed Markey (D-MA), Tom Udall (D-NM), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Tom Carper (D-DE), Brian Schatz (D-HI), and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD).
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 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. Sandovaland 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 of 2019:
“Environmental racism continues to be alive and well in the practice of the U.S. Government. An injustice to one community is an injustice to all communities. This Bill is truly a people's Bill that includes many of the issues that impact environmental justice communities.”—Michele Roberts & Richard Moore, Environmental Justice Health Alliance
“Communities Of Color and low-income communities desperately need policies to be developed and implemented that will address environmental justice issues such as cumulative impacts.”—Nicky Sheats, Ph.D., Esq., Director of the Center for the Urban Environment of the John S. Watson Institute for Public Policy at Thomas Edison State University, member of the NJ Environmental Justice Alliance
“Cory Booker came down to Uniontown and saw some of what is going on. In Uniontown, residents experience odors and the other negative impacts of a cheese plant, a catfish plant, a broken down wastewater treatment system and a landfill that took in 4 million tons of coal ash. We need stronger protections from the cumulative impacts of pollution and violations of our civil rights. It’s clear that our state agency, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, looks the other way, and something has to change.”—Benjamin Eaton, Vice-President of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health & Justice
"As a resident of the South Ward of Newark, my family is exposed, on a daily basis, to disproportionately high levels of diesel pollutants from thousands of trucks, toxic emissions from local facilities, waste stations, toxic flooding and more. This Environmental Justice Act will address the cumulative impacts of state permitting decisions and bring the much needed relief to overburdened EJ communities across the country.”—Kim Gaddy, Environmental Justice Organizer for Clean Water Action and Director of the South Ward Environmental Alliance in Newark, New Jersey
“From mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia, to more pipelines and uranium mining near Native communities, to oil refineries and exploding trains, polluting industries devastate the health and safety of the communities least able to fight back. This bill will support human rights for people traditionally ignored and oppressed by polluters.”—Vernon Haltom, executive director, Coal River Mountain Watch, Naoma, West Virginia
“There is no accountability for the pollution and everything going on in communities at any level – in the counties, our state agency, ADEM, or even EPA. When the law says they have to comply with civil rights if they use federal funds but no one is watching the store, what can we do? The Environmental Justice Act of 2019 will at least allow us to go to court to protect our rights.”—Rev. Ronald Smith, Presidents of the Ashurst Bar/Smith Community Organization, Alabama
“Senator Cory Booker’s Environmental Justice Bill addresses issues upon which the West End Revitalization Association (WERA) of Mebane, North Carolina was found in 1995. African American and Native American residents are still being denied basic public health infrastructure like sewer service connection, safe drinking water access, and highway construction that does not displace affordable housing and places of worship. This federal Environmental Justice bill will support proactive protections for people of color and indigenous areas with stronger implementation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, and development of corrective interagency models at the federal, state, and local levels.”—Omega and Brenda Wilson, co-founders of WERA
“Some communities continue to bear the harmful consequences of industrial pollution. This bill will help to ensure that all communities, especially environmental justice communities will be healthy, safe and free from environmental harm.”—Cecilia Martinez, Executive Director, Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy, Minneapolis, Minnesota
“The Environmental Justice Act of 2019 centers the needs and the rights of environmentally impacted communities at the frontlines of the climate crisis. Linking environmental justice to the Civil Rights Act is an important strategy for moving this work forward.”—Angela Adrar, Executive Director, Climate Justice Alliance