Witnesses tell House hearing how the Coronavirus pandemic has spotlighted environmental injustice

  • Published on June 11th, 2020

Two congressional committees held hearings Tuesday that raised the matter of environmental injustice amid the national protests and the conversation about systemic racism sparked by the killing of unarmed, handcuffed African American George Floyd two weeks ago. As long as the Senate remains under Republican control, of course, the chances any legislation will pass Congress are slim to zilch. The usual resistance from House Republicans was evident in the hearings.

Black lives matter "I can't Breathe" photo by duncan c on Flickr

By Meteor Blades

As reported by Nick Sobczyk at E&E News, Republicans downplayed pollution that burdens communities of color more than others and focused on an economic solution to redress the problem at the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change. Several challenged the results of a not-yet-peer-reviewed Harvard study that found higher death rates from COVID-19 associated with higher exposure to fine particulate matter.

Said Republican Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia: “Tying air pollution to COVID-19 — really? Seriously? It is a simplistic answer to a complicated question. Once again, you are taking advantage of a public health crisis to justify your party’s agenda against fossil fuels.”

The fix for these communities, he and others said, is to reopen the economy and push economic opportunity zones. This was delivered with a straight face while Donald Trump is using the pandemic as an excuse to suspend enforcement of environmental laws and launch an attack by executive order on the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act.

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While such opportunity zones have produced some positive (if modest) results, they don’t do nearly enough to dismantle the institutional racism that plagues low-income communities of color, according to Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president for environmental justice, climate, and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation. “Environmental justice is an environmental issue, but it is also a transportation issue, it is a housing justice issue, it is a public health issue, and it is an economic justice issue.”

Jacqueline Patterson, senior director of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program, said that 71% of African Americans live in counties that are in violation of federal air pollution standards. “To add to the injustice, African American and Latino American people are typically exposed to 56% and 63% more PM2.5 pollution than they produce through consumption and daily activities.” Non-Latino white people are on average exposed to 17% less pollution than they produce, she said.

PM2.5—fine particulate matter less than 1/30th the diameter of human hair—has been shown to shorten average life spans more than tobacco smoking, HIV/AIDS, violence, and vector-borne diseases like malaria. The leading culprit is the burning of fossil fuels in power plants, transportation, and the residential sector. The effect is not small. Researchers say particulate matter in the air causes 8.8 million premature deaths a year globally, with a loss of life expectancy of 2.9 years.

Under the circumstances, Patterson said, the focus ought to be on how to achieve a just transition away from fossil fuels in communities of color.

Sobczyk also reported on a hearing by the House Natural Resources Committee. Chairman Raúl Grijalva of Arizona and Rep. Donald McEachin of Virginia, both Democrats, have put together environmental justice bill H.R. 5986. Among other things, it would establish the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice Compliance and Enforcement. The bill notes:

(3) Communities experiencing environmental in justice have been subjected to systemic racial, social, and economic injustices and face a disproportionate burden of adverse human health or environmental effects, a higher risk of intentional, unconscious, and structural discrimination, and disproportionate energy burdens.

(4) Environmental justice communities have been made more vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to a combination of factors, particularly the legacy of segregation and historically racist zoning codes, and often have the least resources to respond, making it a necessity for environmental justice communities to be meaningfully engaged as with partners and stakeholders in government decision making as our nation builds its climate resilience.

(5) Potential environmental and climate threats to environmental justice communities merit a higher level of engagement, review, and consent to ensure that communities are not forced to bear disproportionate environmental and health impacts.

“The fight for justice doesn’t end with policing,” Grijalva said. “It doesn’t end with one election. It doesn’t even end with modest tinkering, or with a single set of policy goals. […] [T]he fight for justice simply doesn’t end. It continues.”

(Crossposted with DailyKos.)

About the Author

Meteor Blades is a writer and contributing editor at DailyKos. He believes there is something profoundly wrong with our system. - the unchecked accumulation of wealth and power into the hands of a very small group of corporate business interests has contributed to the wholesale corruption of our political system. For an understanding about the level of corruption in our country, he encourages you to view these two PBS documentaries: (1). ,The Untouchables; (2) The United States of ALEC.

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