States Are Beginning to Enact Environmental Justice Laws

Graphic by Annabel Driussi for ODP

With the Trump administration rolling back environmental protections and exacerbating environmental inequalities, the burden had landed on states to take up measures to protect minority and poor communities.  According to Professor Robert Bullard of Texas Southern University, who Inside Climate News called one of the founders of the environmental justice movement, it was that “lack of respect for environmental regulation” and the fast and furious pace of those rollbacks that “galvanized environmental justice campaigns across the nation.”   States like New Jersey, Illinois, Oregon and Virginia all have made significant strides in environmental justice laws and programs.

Why This Matters:  Environmental Justice (EJ) was still not well known in 2019 when Senators Cory Booker, Tammy Duckworth, and Tom Carper created the first EJ Caucus in the Senate in 2019.  They made a powerful case for it here in ODP.  But in 2020, the pandemic and racial justice crises, along with President-elect Biden’s embrace of this movement, has made it the “north star” for environmental policies across the board, starting with climate change.  And as with climate, state governments are leading the way.

Which States Are Progressing EJ

Several states are now at the forefront of the EJ movement. Per Inside Climate News:

  • New Jersey is one of the top states making progress.  State law requires regulators to deny permits for projects where they determine it will put an additional burden on minority and low-income communities that already face health and environmental threats.
  • A similar proposed law in Oregon would mandate the government to consider the “cumulative” impact on neighborhoods that are already burdened by pollution before granting permits to projects that potentially pose a threat to human health or the environment.
  • In Illinois, a proposed law would provide $2 billion to fund clean energy and climate mitigation initiatives in low-income communities of color by 2030.
  • And Massachusetts lawmakers are hoping to override the veto by Republican Governor Charlie Baker, who struck down a bill they passed that that would for the first time codify the definition of an “environmental justice community” in state law.

Similarly, in Virginia, a law passed last year requires Dominion Energy Virginia to prioritize hiring local workers from historically disadvantaged communities.  The same law also creates a fund to enhance flood prevention, protection, and coastal resilience and a low-interest loan program to help inland and coastal communities that are subject to recurrent flooding, that would be funded by the sale of emissions allowances.

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