House Natural Resources Committee Holds Hearing on Historic Environmental Justice For All Act

Washington, D.C. – The House Natural Resources Committee yesterday held a legislative hearing on H.R. 2021, the Environmental Justice For All Act. The hearing marks the culmination of a historic years-long effort by Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), and Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) to gather and incorporate public input, both in person and through an innovative online process, into comprehensive environmental justice legislation.

As Chair Grijalva emphasized in his opening statement, the Environmental Justice For All Act is “based on a very simple principle and premise: all people have the right to clean air, clean water and an environment that enriches their lives.” For many communities of color, tribal and Indigenous communities, and low-income communities, however, these rights go largely unrealized due to policies and actions that disproportionately burden these communities.

Witness’ written testimony and a full recording of the hearing can be found here.

“Tuesday’s hearing was not just an opportunity to hear about a bill: it was an opportunity to hear from the people and communities whose most basic rights have been, at best, ignored and, at worst, actively denied by policymakers and polluting industries for too long,” Grijalva said. “Continuing to let fossil fuel companies and other dirty energy producers rake in profits while communities take in their toxic waste is not an option. The Environmental Justice For All Act puts Americans, not polluters, in charge of their environment, their health, and their future.”

At the hearing, witness Laura Cortez, Co-Executive Director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, described her lived experience with environmental injustice and how it has impacted her life and the health of her community. She praised the bill for directly listening to the communities that have been affected most:

“We will continue to fall short of the dignity we deserve for our health if the federal government does not lead the way in protecting everyone’s health. The Environmental Justice for All Act is both a concrete commitment to the communities that have been harmed and a symbolic sign of respect to communities on the ground doing the work.”

Witness Amy Laura Cahn, Visiting Professor and Director of the Environmental Justice Clinic at Vermont Law School, spoke to the ways that our legal system has created systemic inequities in our environment:

“Environmental racism is segregation imprinted on our landscapes. Racially discriminatory housing, land use, and transportation policies have resulted in environmental justice communities breathing higher concentrations of harmful air pollutants, including from transportation and chronically substandard housing where multiple asthma triggers and lead hazards in paint, dust, soil, and water endanger residents of all ages.”

Witness Dr. Nicky Sheats, Director of the Center for the Urban Environment at the John S. Watson Institute for Urban Policy and Research at Kean University and founding member of the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance, explained how pollution from separate sources, like power plants or manufacturing facilities, can accumulate in a single community, causing greater harm. As he described, these cumulative impacts on communities are not recognized by our current regulatory system:

“Our country attempts to regulate pollution by setting standards for individual pollutants. The problem with this pollutant-by-pollutant approach is that it does not take into account the total amount of pollution in a community and therefore detrimental health impacts can occur in a community’s population even if no individual standard is violated… I applaud the Environmental Justice For All Act for converting words into action by including a cumulative impacts policy, that if adopted, would reduce pollution, decrease illness and save lives in communities, particularly communities of color and low-income communities.”

Some Republicans at the hearing adamantly denied the racist roots of environmental injustices, falsely claiming that these inequities do not exist or that the placement of polluting facilities near communities of color has not been intentional. Rep. McEachin pushed back, saying “Whether it’s intentional or not is not the point. The point is what are we going to do as country, as a nation to lift these communities up, to empower them, to fix [these] problems and to move our country forward.”

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