The Environmental Justice for All Act: To the Republic for Which it Stands

The Pledge of Allegiance asks that citizens pay tribute to the American flag, a symbol of “the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Yet environmental access is wrought with discrimination towards many groups of people. Frontline communities at the center of environmental pollution and climate change, do not have equal ability to enjoy the benefits of a healthy environment. 

According to the Congressional Environmental Justice for All Act Fact Sheet, People of Color are especially prone to public health hazards “living in closer proximity to hazardous sites, facing higher risk for exposure to toxic chemicals, and associated health impacts like asthma and lead poisoning” compared to their privileged counterparts, especially white community members.

Environmental Justice for All Act

Sponsored by Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ) and Congressman Donald A. McEachin (D-VA), the Environmental Justice for All Act is a fundamental pathway toward environmental equity, promoting nondiscrimination toward People of Color, and promoting natural environmental restoration. It would direct resources towards communities to alleviate environmental burdens and ensure robust Tribal representation for activities impacting sacred lands.

Additionally, the bill would allow private citizens, residents, and organizations to seek legal remedies when faced with discrimination. It would require consideration of cumulative impacts in permitting decisions and ensure that permits would not be issued if the project cannot demonstrate a reasonable certainty of no harm to human health.

Key features of the bill include codifying and bolstering President Clinton’s 1994 Executive Order, which directs federal agencies to develop environmental justice strategies. It also strengthens the National Environmental Policy Act to provide early and meaningful community involvement when proposing a federal action affecting environmental justice communities. The bill was drafted with extensive feedback from public health and environmental justice advocates to put resources toward communities suffering from environmental injustice. Their work is a product of an inclusive effort to undo environmental racism by strengthening protections in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Clean Water Act, and the Clean Air Act. 

Although these bedrock laws have had significant positive impacts on air and water, they have left gaps in the environmental justice movement to advance civil rights for Black and brown community members. Often, Black neighborhoods suffer from continuous barriers to health, including waste sites like the proposed mega-landfill in Cumberland County Virginia

Across the street from Pine Grove Elementary School, is a historic institution that has educated since the Jim Crow era. Effects would include “hundreds of daily tractor-trailer trips on local roads and noxious odors emitting from the landfill threaten air quality. Leaks from landfills present unacceptable risks to local streams and wetlands, a prospect made particularly alarming considering the large percentage of residents who rely on private wells for their drinking water.” By incorporating Communities of Color into the legislative process, their voices will be heard when environmental justice strategies are enacted to help them.

The Environmental Justice for All Act strengthens preexisting civil rights environmental laws, allowing all “private citizens, residents, and organizations to seek legal remedy when faced with discrimination,” requiring “consideration of cumulative impacts in permitting decisions and ensures that permits will not be issued if the project cannot demonstrate a reasonable certainty of no harm to human health,” and ensuring “robust Tribal representation throughout the NEPA process for an activity that could impact an Indian Tribe, including activities impacting off-reservation lands and sacred sites.” 

As of July 27th, the House Natural Resources Committee passed the Environmental Justice for All Act. This legislation is supported by the Choose Clean Water Coalition, hosted by the National Wildlife Federation. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that harnesses the collective power of more than 270 organizations, the Coalition advocates for clean rivers and streams in communities across the Chesapeake Bay region. We encourage all members of the House of Representatives to support this transformative legislation, and for the Senate to pass it as well. 

Not only does this bill deliver long overdue acknowledgment of the history of oppression towards frontline communities, but its passage would increase access to nature, improve public health, and uplift communities. And with this progress, we would be one step closer to the American flag standing as a symbol of Justice for All.