Principles for Environmental Justice Legislation

Proposed by:

House Committee on Natural Resources Democrats

Posted on on Jun 21, 2019


Statement of Principles for Environmental Justice Legislation

All people have the right to pure air, clean water, and all the richness and wonder nature can provide. For too many, those rights are still unrealized, and the injustice of that reality takes a daily toll. Across our nation, our air and water are being polluted with impunity, at great consequence to our health and environment. And too often, our government has turned a blind eye—more so in some communities than in others. To help address these long-standing wrongs and promote justice, Congress must advance bold environmental justice legislation.

At a minimum, this legislation must:

  • Strengthen the Civil Rights Act to ensure that citizens can enforce their rights against environmental discrimination. Low-income communities, communities of color, indigenous communities, and other vulnerable populations are disproportionately burdened by environmental hazards in the United States. Too often, landfills, waste sites, and other harmful projects are placed in these communities and are operated in a manner that causes disproportionate environmental harm and risks to human health within them. This disproportionate impact discrimination is illegal under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Unfortunately, in the Alexander v. Sandoval decision, the Supreme Court overturned decades of precedent in order to prohibit private citizens from filing suit to enforce their Title VI rights in the face of disparate impact discrimination. Environmental justice legislation must strengthen Title VI to ensure that citizens can have their day in court when faced with disparate impact discrimination.

  • Ensure that Project Decisions Fully Reflect on-the-Ground Realities and Cumulative Impacts. Currently, federal and state governments often regulate pollution at the individual project level, and as a result, permitting decisions, including under the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, do not necessarily contemplate an area’s cumulative pollution levels, resulting in dangerous environmental and health outcomes. Congress should seek to require that federal and state decision-making consider proposed projects’ impacts in the full, real-world context in which they would actually be constructed or carried out.

  • Codify and Bolster Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice. The 1994 Executive Order on Environmental Justice directed each federal agency to identify and address the “disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations” to the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law. The Executive Order must be strengthened and codified into law so that the current and future administrations cannot weaken or rescind it.

  • Strengthen the National Environmental Policy Act to promote environmental justice. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies to analyze the potential environmental consequences of major federal actions and consider public input before any major actions are taken. When used effectively, NEPA can help prevent a disproportionate share of polluting projects from being sited in vulnerable communities. The existing NEPA process should be strengthened to expand opportunities for public involvement in the federal decision-making process. Federal agencies must be required to increase public comment periods, conduct public hearings, and translate information about proposed projects into languages other than English when major polluting projects are being contemplated in these communities.

  • Direct federal agencies to develop and enact a comprehensive agency-wide environmental justice strategy. All federal agencies must be required to develop effective environmental justice strategies that identify and address any disproportionately high or adverse environmental effects of their programs and practices on low-income communities, communities of color, indigenous communities, and other vulnerable populations. Furthermore, incentives and enforcement measures must be robust in order to ensure that agencies properly manage their environmental justice responsibilities.

  • Establish a Working Group on Environmental Justice Compliance and Enforcement. An Environmental Justice Compliance and Enforcement Working Group should advise and assist federal agencies in identifying and addressing environmental justice issues, provide direct guidance and technical assistance to local communities and environmental justice organizations, and engage with state, tribal, and local governments to address pollution and public health burdens in affected communities.

  • Help environmental justice organizations build capacity through federal community grants. Robust federal community grants should be available to help environmental justice groups identify and implement projects to address environmental and public health concerns. Grants should also help provide scientific and technical assistance so that vulnerable communities have a detailed understanding of the potential environmental and public health threats they face when federal, state, and local decisions are being made about whether to permit a dangerous activity or where to site a hazardous project.  

  • Direct federal agencies to offer training in environmental justice to the federal workforce. A federal training program should ensure that agency staff are best prepared to incorporate environmental justice concepts into their work .

Chairman Grijalva and Congressman McEachin look forward to working with you to draft and advance sweeping environmental justice legislation that best reflects your needs and priorities. Together, we can provide protections for all communities from harmful pollution and ensure that all voices are heard in decision-making processes.


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