Booker, Ruiz Introduce Landmark Environmental Justice Bill

WASHINGTON, D.C. Oct. 24, 2017 – U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz, M.D. (D-CA) today introduced 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.

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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 was informed by Booker’s experience dealing with environmental injustice as Newark’s mayor and recent trips he’s made to North Carolina, Louisiana, and Alabama, where he met with communities struggling with environmental injustices, such as open-air hog waste lagoons adjacent to people’s backyards, industrial garbage dumps that pervade neighborhoods, and exceedingly high concentrations of oil and gas refineries that residents suspect are leading to a wide array of chronic illnesses.

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.

The bill is cosponsored in the Senate by U.S. Senators Tom Carper (D-DE), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Brian Schatz (D-HI), 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).

“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. These communities are often communities of color or indigenous communities, and they tend to be low-income,” said Sen. Booker.

“This is unacceptable and our bill is an important step in changing this reality. This legislation 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. We cannot have social justice or economic justice without environmental justice,” Sen. Booker added.

“Can you imagine watching your child with asthma struggle to draw breath because of new, preventable air pollutants and feeling powerless? Can you picture the anxiety in finding out there are toxic chemicals in your water or near your children’s school and having little way to hold anyone accountable? This is happening in rural and underserved populations in my district and across the country, I know because I have treated them in the emergency department. I am proud to join with Senator Booker to introduce the bicameral and landmark Environmental Justice Act of 2017,” said Dr. Ruiz.

“This legislation gives voice to the voiceless. It strengthens protections for vulnerable populations, gives impacted communities the ability to hold big corporations and government accountable, and provides the funds needed to mitigate and prevent future instances of environmental injustice. Everyone – no matter where they live, their socio-economic status, or their background – deserves a safe and healthy environment to live, work, and play,” Dr. Ruiz added.

“This is a vital piece of legislation introduced at a time when our most vulnerable communities are under extreme hardships due to the reckless decisions of the current Administration,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, Senior Vice President for Climate, Environmental Justice, & Community Revitalization at Hip Hop Caucus, and former Senior Advisor for Environmental Justice and Community Revitalization at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “The common sense proposals outlined in this bill come from over 25 years of stakeholder engagement and bipartisan input. The bill provides basic protections, resources, and tools to empower local communities so that they can take their communities from surviving to thriving. By strengthening our most vulnerable communities, we strengthen America.”

Specifically the bill 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.

Since his time as a tenant lawyer, City Council member, and mayor of Newark, Booker has seen first-hand how low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately affected by poor air quality, tainted drinking water, and toxic Superfund sites. For example, Newark has one of the highest rates of child asthma in the state, and half of all New Jerseyans live within three miles of a Superfund site. As mayor, Booker championed the cleanup of the polluted Passaic River, a federal Superfund site, and spearheaded the creation of community gardens that required planting in raised beds since the soil was too toxic to grow food for human consumption.