Carper Joins Booker, Democratic Senators in Introducing Landmark Environmental Justice Bill

Bill would strengthen protections for communities of color, low-income communities and indigenous communities

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.), top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, joined Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and nine additional senators in introducing the Environmental Justice Act of 2017 to strengthen legal protections against environmental injustice for communities of color, low-income communities and indigenous communities through agency actions and permitting decisions.

“Delaware sits at the end of ‘America’s Tailpipe,’ downwind and downstream from many of our neighbors, and we pay the price for their air and water pollution. But across the country, thousands of low-income, minority and indigenous communities live downstream and downwind from dangerous pollution, and, too frequently, their concerns and challenges take a back seat to their neighbors,” said Senator Carper. “The Environmental Justice Act is an important step to protect these forgotten communities that have every right to air and water that is just as clean and safe as their upstream, upwind or more affluent neighbors. We have a moral obligation to protect all of our citizens from harmful pollution, regardless of race or income or zip code, that can leave communities dealing with the consequences for generations.”

“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 Senator 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.”

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 by Senators Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

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. 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.