A Matter of Life and Death: Advocates Urge Congress to End Environmental Racism

Allison Stevens

Feb. 23, 2022

A native of southeast Los Angeles, Laura Cortez was exposed to a heavy dose of toxic pollution as a child. She grew up near an oil refinery, industry warehouses, and railroad tracks, with trains barreling through at all hours of the night. Her elementary school was located near a major highway — a passthrough for tens of thousands of trucks every day — and her high school was also sited next to train tracks. 

Now co-executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, a grassroots advocacy group, Cortez is working to protect residents of her community and others in the region from the harmful effects of pollution on health and well-being. She shared her story last week with members of Congress to call attention to environmental racism and build support for landmark legislation that would begin to address it. 

“My reality is not an exception,” she told members of the House Natural Resources Committee last Tuesday. “And honestly, community is exposed to so much more — at the same time, all the time.”

A healthy environment is a basic human right, Cortez and other witnesses argued during the hearing. Yet low-income people and communities of color — from those in Uniontown, Alabama, to Flint, Michigan, to Louisiana’s notorious “Cancer Alley” — are more likely than predominantly white communities to lack access to clean air, water, and soil and less likely to benefit from investments in clean energy. These and other environmental justice communities bear the brunt of multiple environmental and economic stressors — and their adverse health impacts — due to intentional discrimination. 

“The legacies of de jure and de facto segregation are imprinted on our landscapes,” Amy Laura Cahn, director of the Environmental Justice Clinic at Vermont Law School, testified. Racially discriminatory housing, land use, and transportation policies concentrate pollution in communities of color, which in turn contributes to health problems like asthma attacks, lead poisoning, and cancer, she testified. “Black Americans, in particular, are exposed to more pollution from all major emission sources, including waste, energy, industrial agriculture, vehicles, and construction,” disparities that she said exist across geography and income level. 

Climate change, as my colleagues have found in recent reports, is exacerbating risks to marginalized communities.

Landmark Legislation

A solution, Cahn and Cortez asserted, is the Environmental Justice for All Act, sweeping legislation that would strengthen environmental standards and create safer and healthier communities for all, regardless of race, ethnicity, or income. The bill would, among other things: 

  • Strengthen federal civil rights law to prohibit discrimination based on disparate impacts and offer legal recourse in response to it. 
  • Require permitting decisions to take the total amount of pollution in a given community (i.e., cumulative impacts) into account and show no harm to human health. 
  • Direct federal agencies to develop environmental justice strategies and report on their implementation and progress. 
  • Fund research on safer products marketed to women and girls of color, expand equitable access to parks and recreational spaces in urban areas, and much more.

In his testimony, Nicky Sheats, director of the Center for the Urban Environment at Kean University, called the bill’s focus on reducing cumulative impacts one of its most important aspects. People of color are far more likely to live near the dirtiest oil refineries, he said, and industrial facilities have “taken an irreparable toll” on Indigenous lands and people. 

A Matter of Life and Death

“All people have the right to clean air, clean water, and an environment that enriches their lives,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee and chief sponsor of the bill. For far too many, he continued, these rights are unrealized — and actively denied.

The bill was developed with significant input from members and leaders of environmental justice communities. “It was truly written by the people, for the people,” said Virginia Rep. Donald McEachin, the leading co-sponsor of the House legislation.

Introduced last March, the bill comes amid a national reckoning over racism and a growing focus on environmental justice. Last year, President Joe Biden signed an executive order directing 40 percent of federal climate investments toward historically marginalized communities — though race will not be used to determine eligibility. Biden’s signature equity and environmental package — the $1.7 trillion Build Back Better bill — would also address environmental injustice

With that package stalled in the narrowly divided Senate, Grivalja turned to the Environmental Justice for All Act. About 90 members of the U.S. House have signed on to the bill, and a dozen senators have lent support to a companion measure in the Senate. The Senate version, however, has yet to see committee action and faces long odds due to stiff Republican opposition and Democrats’ slim majority.

Still, McEachin called the hearing an “important step” in a long legislative journey toward justice. “For too long, low-income communities, communities of color, and tribal and Indigenous communities have borne the brunt of environmental degradation and injustice while being left out of crucial decision-making processes,” he said in a statement. “Our bill recognizes the unique challenges and burdens individual communities face and avoids a one-size-fits all approach.”

Cortez, for her part, called the legislation a matter of life and death. It’s “that important,” she said. 

To learn more, read our joint letter in support of the act, read our reports on climate and environmental justice, subscribe to our e-mail list, and follow us on social media.

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