Low-income communities, communities of color, and indigenous peoples suffer disproportionately from pollution, but a bill introduced Monday by Sen. Cory Booker could solidify environmental protections for these groups—if it passes. With zero Republican sponsors, the Environmental Justice Act of 2017 feels like a long shot, but Booker is hopeful.
“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,” said Booker in an online statement.
Vulnerable communities have historically turned to the Environmental Protection Agency to air their environmental concerns, even if their complaints don’t always amount to much. With the Trump administration rolling back environmental regulations and the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice—which was launched in 1992 to support communities in achieving clean air and water—merging with Administrator Scott Pruitt’s office, environmentalists have grown increasingly concerned for the health and safety of America’s most vulnerable.
Advocates are, however, cheering Booker’s Environmental Justice Act of 2017, which received more than 40 endorsements from public health and environmental justice organizations. The New Jersey Democratic senator authored the bill after months of consulting with folks in southern states like North Carolina, Alabama, and Louisiana. He met with activists to hear firsthand about the health hazards they face.
Here are some highlights of what the bill would accomplish if passed.
In 1994, former President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898 to establish “environmental justice” not only as a concept but as a rule federal agencies and regulators must follow. In short, legislators and rule makers could no longer ignore the inequitable degree to which communities of color and low-income people were suffering from environmental health hazards.
Every project lawmakers permit is supposed to keep the most vulnerable in mind. However, executive orders can go only so far—and they’re always at the whim of future presidents who can repeal them at any moment.
Booker wants to codify Clinton’s order into law. This would prevent Trump from straight up erasing it, and it would force EPA Administrator Pruitt to weave environmental justice more intimately into the agency’s actions. But Booker also wants to strengthen the executive order by allowing more public participation in decision-making processes.
Per Clinton’s executive order, all federal agencies are technically required to consider how a project, be it a crude oil pipeline or coal export terminal, would impact nearby communities—especially if they’re made up of people of color or poor people.
The problem is that there isn’t an effective process to ensure officials do. And so the executive order gets ignored, resulting in litigation after the fact, like what happened with the Dakota Access pipeline. After the 1,172-mile long pipeline was constructed, a federal court judge ruled in June that the Army Corps of Engineers violated the National Environmental Policy Act by, in part, by not taking environmental justice implications into consideration when permitting it. NEPA has incorporated Clinton’s 1994 order into its text to help enforce it.
Booker’s bill hopes to establish requirements that federal agencies implement and update annual strategies on how to address disparate environmental health issues. And that requires tribal consultation—which opponents to the Dakota Access pipeline asked for repeatedly.
The problems Booker is hoping to address might feel distant to some, but they’re very real for the people who are living them. Industry tends to concentrate in specific, vulnerable communities—something this bill wants the Clean Air and Clean Water acts to account for when issuing permits. Once agencies grant industry permission to go ahead with a project, members of that community don’t always have effective processes in place to challenge it, either.
The Environmental Justice Act of 2017 wants to remove legal precedent that prevents individuals from suing for damages incurred during events like the Flint water crisis. Right now, this can’t happen under the Civil Rights Act because of a Supreme Court decision in Alexander v. Sandoval, which concluded that private individuals can’t use the act to enforce regulations. People need federal agencies to bring forth such litigation for them to receive relief.
If Booker’s bill passes, frontline communities might finally have the opportunity to defend themselves without having to rely on the government. Maybe they’ll have a chance to avoid a fight altogether.