Durbin, Colleagues Introduce Landmark Environmental Justice Bill
Bill Would Strengthen Protections For Communities Of Color, Low-Income Communities, And Indigenous Communities
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) joined Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and U.S. Representative Raul Ruiz (D-CA) to introduce a landmark bill that represents a major step toward eliminating environmental injustice. The Environmental Justice Act of 2017 requires federal agencies to address environmental justice through agency actions and permitting decisions, and strengthens legal protections against environmental injustice for communities of color, low-income communities, and indigenous communities.
“EPA Region 5 – which encompasses Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, and 35 Tribes – plays a vital role in environmental justice initiatives, like the petroleum coke and manganese pollution issues on the Southeast Side of Chicago. Unfortunately, there are far too many communities like Southeast Chicago that have faced environmental and public health threats for far too long with very little action. This is completely unacceptable,” said Durbin. “I’m proud to introduce this bill with my colleague Senator Booker, which codifies and expands requirements that federal agencies mitigate impacts on vulnerable and underserved communities when making environmental decisions, and provides those communities with legal tools to protect their rights.”
The bill is the culmination of a months-long process of working with dozens of grassroots organizations across the country to craft a comprehensive bill that strengthens environmental justice protections for vulnerable communities.
The bill is cosponsored in the Senate by U.S. Senators Tom Carper (D-DE), Brian Schatz (D-HA), Tom Udall (D-NM), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Ed Markey (D-MA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
The Environmental Justice Act of 2017 is endorsed by more than 40 public health and environmental justice organizations. A full list of endorsing organizations can be found here.
Specifically, the Environmental Justice Act of 2017 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 2017 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 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, such as the area between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana infamously known as Cancer Alley, where Senator Booker visited this summer. 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. Sandoval and 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.
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