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Virginia’s ‘Gentle Giant’ Leaves Long Legacy in Environmental Justice

Climate Justice Public Protections Air Chemicals Climate Environmental Justice Water

Gentle giant.

These two words appear over and over again in tributes to the late Rep. Donald McEachin, who died on November 28 from complications from cancer. He was 61.

The Virginia Democrat indeed stood tall in the halls of Congress, where he served constituents in and south of Richmond. But he was a giant in the figurative sense of the word, too, particularly when it came to racial equity and environmental justice — issues he championed over two decades in political office.

A lawyer with degrees in political science and divinity, McEachin first turned to politics a quarter century ago, serving several terms in both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly. In 2001, he became the first African American to win a major party nomination for attorney general in the Commonwealth — once the capital of the confederacy. He lost in the general election but won a U.S. House seat in 2016, the third Black Virginian ever to do so.

Throughout his pioneering tenure, McEachin championed climate justice and environmental protections, issues we care deeply about and work tirelessly for at the Center for Progressive Reform.

Just this fall, McEachin sent a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seeking stricter regulation of aboveground storage tanks (ASTs) containing hazardous chemicals, which threaten low-wealth communities and communities of color most.

His letter cites a report the Center for Progressive Reform recently published that identifies and maps thousands of unregulated ASTs throughout Virginia. “These numbers are alarming,” McEachin wrote in his letter, which urges EPA to finalize “the most protective rule possible.” Nineteen other House lawmakers signed the letter, which was developed by the Environmental Justice Health Alliance with support from Coming Clean, Clean Water Action, and the National Resources Defense Council.

Deep Commitment to Climate Justice

We at the Center were so grateful for his advocacy around the critical but overlooked issue of ASTs and for his deeper commitment to climate and environmental justice, issues of great concern to his constituents. Once the “asthma capital” of the country, Richmond and the surrounding area are facing climate and environmental challenges including pollution, sea-level rise, extreme heat, and more. The area also has a legacy of environmental racism.

In his first House term, McEachin co-founded a congressional task force on climate and environmental justice and led federal efforts to create safer and healthier communities for all, particularly those near the fenceline of industrial facilities, which are disproportionately low-wealth people of color.

He also served on both the Climate and Energy and Natural Resources Committees, a rare double platform that enabled him to amplify his work on climate justice and environmental protections, according to Energy & Environment News. He also held leading roles in on the House Democratic Environmental Message Team, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition.

A major legislative endeavor was the Environmental Justice for All Act, the most significant bill at the federal level to address environmental racism. Alongside Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, McEachin led an historic effort to develop the legislation in close partnership with environmental justice advocates and community leaders. It was true grassroots engagement, in the best sense of the word.

He and Grijalva then led the long fight to enact the sweeping bill, which would reform environmental permitting laws, direct federal agencies to develop environmental justice strategies and report on their progress, expand access to parks, and more. Their work helped raise awareness of environmental justice, a key platform of President Biden’s presidential campaign, and built support for McEachin’s signature policy proposal, which now has more than 100 cosponsors.

A ‘Symbolic Victory’

Even in his death, this giant in Virginia politics casts a long shadow.

To honor his legacy, some House lawmakers are pushing for a full vote on the Environmental Justice for All Act this month — before Republicans assume control of the U.S. House in January. Though the bill has little chance of passing the U.S. Senate due to GOP opposition, proponents hope House passage will “score a symbolic victory” for environmental justice, according to Energy & Environment News.

“Congressman McEachin … was a guiding light and led the way on a path towards equity and smart policy to remedy the burden of pollution on people’s lives,” Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida, chair of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, and other committee members wrote in a recent letter to House leaders. Passing the bill in the House will “honor Donald’s legacy and empower vulnerable communities across the United States,” they write.

In losing McEachin, the climate justice movement has lost a giant — a gentle one at that. We at the Center cannot think of a more fitting tribute to honor him and his remarkable legacy than passing his Environmental Justice for All Act.

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