Bloomberg Law
July 14, 2020, 7:56 PMUpdated: July 14, 2020, 11:15 PM

Minority Communities Hail Biden’s Plan for Environmental Justice (1)

Stephen Lee
Stephen Lee

Environmental justice activists are applauding Joe Biden’s clean energy plan, unveiled Tuesday, because of how it focuses on communities of color that have long suffered from exposure to pollution.

The plan by the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee would create a special division of the EPA and Justice Department that would focus on safeguarding front-line communities that are most exposed to pollution. The agencies would be empowered to pursue criminal anti-pollution claims and hold corporate executives personally accountable, including the possibility of jail time, for legal violations.

The former vice president also wants to put senior environmental justice staffers on the White House Council on Environmental Quality, update a 1994 executive order on environmental justice, overhaul the Environmental Protection Agency’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office, and start a rulemaking on agency guidance for investigating complaints under the Civil Rights Act.

“Legacy EJ [environmental justice] communities feel they have been heard,” said Michele Roberts, national co-coordinator of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance. “This is indeed a big step forward for Joseph R. Biden. It is clear he listened to more people than himself and his inner circle. We have never heard him articulate EJ this way.”

‘Somebody Should Bear the Responsibility’

Catherine Flowers, who helped craft the plan as a member of the Unity Task Force forged between Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who ran to the left of Biden during the Democratic presidential campaign, said one of its most important components is the threat of jail time for individuals who pollute in underserved areas.

“When we look at legacy communities, where pollution has been happening for years and nothing has happened, somebody should bear the responsibility for that,” Flowers said. “There should be a consequence, and it shouldn’t be borne by people who live in those communities.”

She also applauded Biden’s goals of giving residents from environmental justice communities a greater voice in policy making.

“In a lot of cases, when plants were sited, the community wasn’t given the proper information; nor were they allowed to be part of the decision making process,” Flowers said. “Letting them sit at the table could have a lot of influence. By incorporating their voices, we would have more equity than we have now.”

But H. Sterling Burnett, a policy research fellow at the free-market Heartland Institute, said the Biden plan seems to create an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy between affected communities and those accused of being polluters.

Current laws already let the EPA refer criminal violations to the Justice Department for potential prosecution, Burnett said.

“There’s nothing in this plan that can’t take place under current law,” he said. “I’m not sure what you gain, other than a rhetorical talking point. And you create perhaps potential jobs for more bureaucrats.”

‘Climate Crimes’ Unit Questioned

And Sarah Hunt, CEO of the nonprofit Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy, questioned the criminal prosecutions component of the Biden plan.

“Environmental crime victims do not need a new ‘climate crimes’ prosecution unit,” she said. “But victims do need robust enforcement of the federal Crime Victims’ Right Act during criminal environmental prosecutions.”

That statute gives victims key procedural rights that formally integrate their voices in the criminal justice system, Hunt said.

Strong presidential support for Crime Victims’ Right Act compliance is needed to ensure environmental justice in criminal prosecutions of anti-pollution laws, according to Hunt.

“The often large number of victims in these cases means the government routinely lacks the resources to effectively identify, notice, and give voice to these victims,” she said. “A new unit of environmental crime victim advocates would do much more to advance environmental justice than re-organizing prosecutors, who already work on these cases.”

Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in a statement that Biden’s plan “relies on increased taxes and more expensive energy, housing, and transportation, which will inflict disproportionate harm on the poor, minorities, and the working class—people who can least afford increased economic burdens in a post-Covid world.”

Support From EJ Leaders

Other parts of the Biden plan include a recommendation that each state carefully monitor emissions, criteria pollutants, and toxics in front-line communities; require that the EPA create a community notification program; target water and air pollution in disadvantaged communities; and steer 40% of the benefits from his plan’s $2 trillion investment in clean energy toward those communities.

Anthony Rogers-Wright, a policy coordinator at the Climate Justice Alliance, also hailed the plan as “a very good start.”

Some pieces could stand to be bulked up, though, such as Biden’s plans for ending fossil fuel infrastructure, especially fracking, Rogers-Wright said.

“It’s good that he wants to hold polluters accountable, but what about abandoning fracking wells, which are still leaking methane?” said Rogers-Wright. “I’d love to hear more about that.”

He further called for more details about Biden’s plan for large-scale industrial agriculture, “which is just as deleterious to air and water as Big Oil.”

Harold Mitchell, one of six members on Biden’s climate advisory council and a former Democratic member of the South Carolina House, said the plan was created with heavy input from environmental justice leaders.

“This wasn’t something the vice president just pulled out of the sky and was created in a vacuum,” he said. “Where folks were splintered before, this is something that everyone sees as the right move. It’s something a lot of EJ leaders and folks in these communities never imagined would have come from a presidential candidate.”

Mitchell also said the coronavirus pandemic has torn the cover back on a historic lack of attention and investments in “sacrifice zones,” and has renewed interest in the disproportionate impacts that communities of color have endured

(Updates with additional reporting throughout.)

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To contact the editor responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at