Environmental justice is getting a lot of attention these days. On social media and across national news outlets, people are recognizing that too many Americans have been living without the very basic rights of clean air, clean water, and clean outdoor spaces to enjoy for far too long.
Not coincidentally, the communities being denied these rights are most often made up of people of color, Indigenous Peoples, and people with low incomes. These communities have been ignored or silenced as pollutants and toxins from power plants, solid waste facilities, uranium mines, and other hazardous sites have threatened their environment and their health. Many of these same communities are now finding themselves at the frontlines of climate change as well.
Fortunately, the American people are asking for a change. And there are signs of hope that change is happening. Days after his inauguration, President Biden swiftly issued an executive order that put environmental justice at the center of his agenda by launching the ambitious Justice40 Initiative and establishing the first White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, among other efforts.
For Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) of the House Natural Resources Committee, this moment of truth for the environmental justice movement has been a long time coming. Having championed the movement in Congress for years, he stands ready to keep this momentum going. That’s why, on Feb. 15, the House Natural Resources Committee is holding a hearing on the landmark Environmental Justice For All Act.
Chair Grijalva is convening the full Committee to talk about the major pieces of the bill (more on those here) and to hear from experts about why the bill is so important, especially as we navigate the challenges of climate change. This is a crucial step forward in the path to making the Environmental Justice For All Act the law of the land.
But to be clear, this hearing isn’t the first step the Committee has taken to put environmental justice in the spotlight. Under Chair Grijalva’s leadership, environmental justice has been a major priority of the Committee for a LONG time.
So, before the hearing gets underway, we wanted to take a look back at how the Environmental Justice For All Act came to be and all the work that got us here. After all, before you know where you’re going, it’s a good idea to remember where you’ve been.
Environmental justice is no stranger to the national news cycle now, but it hasn’t always been that way. Environmental justice began as a grassroots movement, with small, but determined groups of individuals — like the residents of Warren County, N.C. — protesting or striking against unfair treatment and environmental injustices.
As the grassroots groups grew louder, Rep. Grijalva and other progressive leaders in Congress took notice. And in 2015, when Rep. Grijalva became Ranking Member of the House Natural Resources Committee, he knew it was time to take the issue to the national stage.
On April 8, 2015, then-Ranking Member Grijalva and other Democrats on the Committee held the first congressional Forum on Environmental Justice in Los Angeles. At the forum, leaders of California-based environmental and health organizations brought Congress’ attention to the environmental inequities happening across the state and the rest of the country.
On July 28, 2017, Rep. Grijalva became the first member of Congress to introduce comprehensive legislation aimed at addressing environmental injustices across the country — the Environmental Justice and Civil Rights Restoration and Enforcement Act. The bill would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to allow individuals to sue the federal government when it takes actions that disproportionately impact the environment or health of select communities. This remains one of the fundamental principles of the current Environmental Justice For All Act.
Following introduction of the bill, Rep. Grijalva convened an Environmental Justice Working Group of advisors to help inform future federal policy solutions for addressing environmental justice.
With Republicans in charge, Rep. Grijalva’s bill was never brought to the Committee for a legislative hearing, but nevertheless, the table was set. Environmental justice was no longer just the aspiration of grassroots organizations — Congress was paying attention and members like Rep. Grijalva were ready to work for change.
When Democrats won the House majority in 2018, the House Natural Resources Committee seized the opportunity to put Rep. Grijalva in the chair. Under his new leadership, one thing soon became clear: Environmental justice legislation wasn’t going to be left on the Committee’s cutting room floor any longer.
Buoyed by the support of fellow Natural Resources Committee member, Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), Chair Grijalva and the Environmental Justice Working Group immediately got to work at the start of the 116th Congress by holding a series of roundtable discussions in communities across the country, including New Mexico, Puerto Rico, and a forum for Black History Month.
On June 26, 2019, Chair Grijalva and Rep. McEachin rounded out the community roundtable discussions with a historic Environmental Justice Summit at the U.S. Capitol. The first summit of its kind, the day-long event convened environmental justice leaders, advocates, and practitioners to connect with and educate policymakers on the environmental justice movement, its current challenges, and policy priorities. The event drew the attention and participation of hundreds of activists and leaders. Together, input from participants at the previous roundtables and the summit helped inform a Statement of Environmental Justice Policy Principles. This Statement of Principles would guide future environmental justice legislation.
Highlights & A Call To Action From The Historic Congressional Environmental Justice Convening
Chair Grijalva is working to elevate the voices of communities traditionally left out of the policy making process.
At the summit, Chair Grijalva announced a historic effort to draft comprehensive environmental justice legislation based on public input and feedback. With the Statement of Principles serving as the guiding framework, Chair Grijalva and Rep. McEachin launched an innovative online tool to solicit public comments on draft legislation over the next several months.
On February 27, 2020, after a year-long effort to incorporate public feedback into a draft bill, Chair Grijalva and Rep. McEachin introduced the Environmental Justice for All Act. The bill had 18 original cosponsors and was met with enthusiastic support from environmental justice groups across the country.
Amid the complications caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Chair Grijalva and Rep. McEachin kept working diligently and determinedly to make sure the Environmental Justice For All Act reflected the needs of the communities it was meant to protect. Throughout the second half of 2020, the lawmakers hosted a virtual “tour” in communities that had been harmed by environmental injustices, including Michigan, New Mexico, Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” Los Angeles, and Appalachia. It also highlighted the work of environmental racism experts at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
On March 18, 2021, at the start of the 117th Congress and President Biden’s first term, Chair Grijalva and Rep. McEachin re-introduced the Environmental Justice For All Act. The bill was introduced with an expanded list of 26 original co-sponsors and was accompanied by a companion bill in the Senate introduced by Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.). The Natural Resources Committee will discuss this version of the bill, which now has 88 cosponsors. at the Feb. 15 legislative hearing.
Since the bill’s introduction, Chair Grijalva, Rep. McEachin, and Sen. Duckworth have continued working with environmental justice groups, the Biden administration, and other important stakeholders to ensure that the Environmental Justice For All Act keeps affected communities and their needs at its core.
The lawmakers also worked hard to make sure the provisions of the bill that amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were passed through the House in the Clean Economy Jobs and Innovation Act on Sept. 24, 2020.
The Feb. 15 hearing will mark both the culmination of all of these efforts so far and the beginning of a renewed legislative push to make environmental justice for all a reality.
Tune in to watch the hearing on Feb. 15 at 10:00 a.m. Eastern time here.