Congress Told to Take Holistic Approach to Environmental Justice

June 9, 2020, 7:56 PM

The environmental injustice that disadvantaged communities suffer affects the country’s overall health and economic bottom line, witnesses told House lawmakers Tuesday.

“These injustices cost our country a huge amount of money” related to health impacts on people in communities that have historically been ignored, said Mustafa Santiago Ali. He spoke during a virtual Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing with several Democrats and Republicans. “Everything from education to housing to a number of other components that stop communities from being able to move from surviving to thriving,” he said.

Investing in more clean energy jobs and greener infrastructure is necessary to deal with future pandemics, but also to tackle the unfolding “climate emergency,” he said.

Waiting to act is “going to end up costing us much more. So, it just makes sense to invest today,” said the former longtime official at the Environmental Protection Agency. Ali is the current vice president of environmental justice, climate, and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation.

“Let’s make sure we are setting the table correctly,” said Ali, about incorporating environmental justice into the country’s recovery.

‘Central to Our Work’

Environmental justice concerns the environment, but it’s also about justice for communities of color when it comes to transportation, housing, public health and economics, Ali said. He said the EPA has an interagency working group that could be collaborating on the intersection of pollution and coronavirus with other government entities.

Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee, said the panel is “committed to making sure environmental justice is central to our work moving forward,” a point he emphasized earlier in the day during an interview with Politico.

The subcommittee held a separate hearing on the issue last fall.

The number of Covid-19 deaths and cases in communities of color, which have long been exposed to pollution, “tell us that what we do matters” in this space, Tonko said.

“I think there is a lesson to all of us that there is an overlap in economic development policy, public health policy, and environmental policy,” he said.

But lawmakers need to listen to frontline communities for the best solutions, said Jacqueline Patterson, senior director of the environmental and climate justice program for the NAACP. Patterson said policymakers should focus on what they can do to reduce energy costs for low-income communities, move away from subsidizing fossil fuel production, and prioritize pre-disaster mitigation.

“We need to be making sure we have civil and human rights at the center of emergency management,” she said.

The Heroes Act (H.R. 6800), which the House passed last month, contains language that would provide communities with environmental justice grants and ensure that low-income residents who can’t pay energy bills aren’t penalized by utility companies.

Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), who is on Energy and Commerce as well as the Committee on the Climate Crisis, said his environmental justice legislation would be incorporated into the report the climate panel releases this summer.

‘We Literally Can’t Breathe’

The well-attended virtual hearing coincided Tuesday with the funeral service for George Floyd, a black man whose death at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked nationwide protests.

Particulate matter and air pollution exacerbate asthma and other respiratory disease, particularly in those with underlying chronic health conditions. People of color have been dying from Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, at much higher rates than the white population, despite being a smaller percentage of Americans overall.

“Covid-19 continues to devastate black, brown, and indigenous communities both in infections and deaths,” said Ali, who blamed some of that on the Trump administration’s “rolling back” of environmental rules. “When we say, ‘I Can’t Breathe,’ we literally can’t breathe.”

Panel Republicans agreed that environmental justice needs to be part of the equation but pushed back that the administration’s environmental policies contributed to the problem.

Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-Ore.) pledged to “listen, learn and act” and noted there was “bipartisan” desire to explore how Covid-19 disproportionately impacted minority communities.

But “we also need to reject overly burdensome regulations that might sound good in a soundbite but do little to help the environment while keeping workers from finding good-paying jobs,” he said.

Opportunity Zones

One area that could be ripe for bipartisanship involves expanding opportunity zones, with Republicans in particular touting the program during the hearing.

The 2017 tax reform law created the zones, which give businesses such as in real estate incentives to invest in distressed and disadvantage communities across the country.

A bipartisan Senate bill is pending that would require more data and transparency on how the program is working. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has estimated that approximately $100 billion will be invested in these communities over the next decade.

That presents opportunities for everything from clean technology to more rural broadband, Shay Hawkins, president of the Opportunity Funds Association, told lawmakers.

“They are not a panacea, but they are a very sharp tool in the community development toolbox,” said Hawkins, a former aide to Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who helped craft the legislative language related to Opportunity Zones.

While Democrats and environmental advocates generally support the idea of Opportunity Zones, they also are wary that the incentives could offer more benefits to wealthy investors than the actual communities they are designed to help.

“There’s been a lot of talk about Opportunity Zones,” said Rep. Nanette Barragan (D-Calif.). “I support Opportunity Zones to help create jobs, but that’s not going to help our black and brown communities that have to live in these communities right next to air pollution.”

The Internal Revenue Service in June issued guidance extending rules related to investments in eligible Opportunity Zones because of the coronavirus pandemic.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kellie Lunney in Washington at klunney@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergindustry.com

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