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Environmental justice reinforcement unveiled in House

A new bill would expand federal civil rights law to protect communities disproportionately affected by climate change.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Democratic lawmakers unveiled a sweeping new piece of legislation Wednesday, aimed at shielding vulnerable communities from the effects of pollution and climate change, as well as strengthening government outreach.

Sponsors of the bill call it the largest congressional action yet addressing issues of environmental justice — a concept that centers around ensuring equity for communities that bear the brunt of climate change and other environmental ills.

The A. Donald McEachin Environmental Justice for All Act is named for the Virginia congressman who died in November and who worked on the legislation with the Arizona congressman now at the head of it, Representative Raúl Grijalva. McEachin and Grijalva introduced a similar measure in 2020 and again in 2021; neither bill saw a vote on the House floor.

Among other things, the new bill would, if made law, amend the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act to say that the actions of federal agencies can be considered prohibited discrimination if they cause an outsized impact on communities based on race, color or national origin. The 146-page bill would also allow individuals to file private discrimination lawsuits under the Civil Rights Act, an action that has been blocked under the Supreme Court’s 2001 decision in Alexander v. Sandoval.

Federal agencies would also get more stringent standards under Grijalva’s legislation, requiring them to consider how their actions affect vulnerable communities and to produce annual reports on their efforts to tackle decisions that could have a disproportionate impact on environmental justice. Within the Environmental Protection Agency, the bill would create an environmental justice "ombuds," making a gender-neutral edit to the word more commonly known as an ombudsman. This independent investigator would review complaints and allegations from communities about possible environmental justice violations and make recommendations to the EPA administrator to address recurring issues.

The measure would further unlock a total of around $85 million in federal funding to be doled out as grants to communities for use in research, education and training on environmental justice issues.

Grijalva framed the legislation as a community effort rather than a congressional one, and said he hoped other lawmakers would follow such an example.

“It’s not my piece of legislation,” the Democrat representing parts of Phoenix and southern Arizona said during a press conference on the Capitol steps Wednesday morning. “In fact, it’s not any lawmaker’s piece of legislation. This legislation was developed and sustained by communities impacted by environmental injustice.”

California Democrat Sydney Kamlager-Dove, one of Congress’ newest members and a co-sponsor of the bill, railed during the presser on what she said was a culture on Capitol Hill of profits over people.

“You cannot serve the people if you don’t love the people,” Kamlager-Dove said. “The climate crisis is real. It must be said loud and clear in every committee and on the floor until everyone understands that we are fighting for justice for everyone, not just those in glass houses.”

Kamlager-Dove bemoaned efforts from House Republicans to unravel federal law requiring federal agencies considering actions affecting the environment to consult vulnerable communities early in the process. “Help me, Jesus,” she exclaimed.

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker added that the proposed environmental justice legislation was built around a fundamental American ideal.

“This bill is about justice for all,” Booker said, “and you cannot have justice without environmental justice. Like the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the workers rights movement and the LGBTQ movement, this has got to be a national movement now.”

Despite challenges in getting the previous versions of his legislation through the House, Grijalva said his newest attempt is not doomed to fail, and positioned it as the foil to an energy bill that House Republicans introduced on March 14 to increase domestic oil and natural gas production.

As of Wednesday, Grijalva’s measure had yet to be assigned to a committee.

Since taking office, President Biden has put an emphasis on environmental justice efforts. The White House in a January 2021 executive order stood up an interagency environmental justice task force made up of administration officials, and established the Justice40 initiative, a program mandating that at least 40% of the benefits from federal climate programs go to underserved communities.

Updated 03/24/2023 to reflect that California Rep. Sydney Kamlager-Dove spoke at the unveiling.

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