Virginia is seeking to build on its effort to weigh environmental justice impacts in virtually every aspect of state operations, from agriculture and housing policies to the siting of roads and landfills—the latest sign states are taking the lead over the federal government.
The state’s Interagency Environmental Justice Working Group, a new task force drawn from 10 representatives from state agencies, is slated to meet Oct. 1. It was launched under 2020 budget language that the Virginia General Assembly adopted in March.
State agencies are to produce reports by November identifying what they’re doing on environmental justice, where the gaps are in their work, and—if possible—what it would cost to implement environmental justice in their work, Meryem Karad, policy and communications adviser to Virginia’s secretary of natural resources, said at an August webinar.
Virginia also has taken other steps to ensure citizens have more say in state decisions affecting environmental justice, in moves that advocates say other states should follow.
Under H.B. 1042, which passed after Democrats flipped Virginia’s House and Senate in November, a new 27-member council on environmental justice is meant to connect all the state’s cabinet-level agencies and learn what they are doing to promote fair treatment of what are considered “frontline” communities—predominantly minority and low-income populations, said Matthew Strickler, Virginia’s secretary of natural resources.
‘Ethos of Public Service’
“This is something we need to ingrain and build into state government as part of the ethos of public service,” Strickler said in an interview. “We want it to be something that’s lasting.”
Virginia’s action comes as other states, including California and New York, have moved to integrate environmental justice considerations into state actions, including steering funding to disadvantaged communities to combat climate change.
California’s 2017 Equity in Clean Energy Investments Act (AB 523) requires 25% of funds collected for renewable energy efforts be set aside for disadvantaged communities, with an added 10% set aside for low-income households.
The New York Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, signed in 2019, requires at least 35% of the overall benefits of clean energy and efficiency be spent in historically disadvantaged communities.
But Strickler said Virginia’s actions are different in that they are “pursuing environmental justice at an agency level” to ensure agency actions are working “in a thoughtful, comprehensive way” to consider impacts on low-income and other disadvantaged communities.
Other states, such as Texas, Michigan, Minnesota, and New Jersey, are considering measures in 2021 that would require the weighing of the cumulative impacts of environmental policies on disadvantaged communities, such as for permits to expand industrial and other polluting sites.
The Virginia law made an existing Council on Environmental Justice, which had already been established by Gov. Ralph Northam (D), a permanent body to recommend environmental justice policies to state legislators. Twenty-one of the the council’s 27 seats were set aside for citizens, including representatives of tribes and community organizations.
“The urgency is to make as much progress as we can” before the term-limited Northam leaves office in 2022, Strickler said.
He said a complicated web of state laws can impact disadvantaged communities, and untangling those will likely take a longer look by the General Assembly.
“There’s a lot of stuff that’s embedded in the code that doesn’t acknowledge this is a problem,” Strickler said.
At the federal level, Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), a senior Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee who is vying to lead his party on the panel next year, said both parties recognize the need for more action on environmental justice. But he said Republicans remain wary of adding new regulations that could stymie economic growth.
Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (R-Ariz.) has vowed to move the Environmental Justice for All Act (H.R. 5986) to require agencies to weigh the cumulative health impacts before issuing Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act permits.
Neither party “should run out and say, ‘We are the standard-bearers of justice,’ because as Americans, we should all be concerned about justice,” Westerman said in an interview, adding “poverty and a poor environment pretty much go hand in hand.”
But congressional action likely hinges on whether Democrats control both chambers and the White House after the November election.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), among the most vocal environmental justice proponents in the Senate, is drafting legislation he’ll introduce later this month to essentially block new projects that would increase pollution in “communities already overburdened by air pollution.”
‘This Is About Framing’
Sarah Hunt, who backs conservative energy and climate solutions as CEO of the Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy, said Republicans across many states could support at least some policies—typically those that provide disadvantaged communities more participation in policy decisions or more transparency about how their communities are being impacted by pollution.
The way forward is similar to how both parties have come together at times to combat climate change, she said in an interview. Republicans, even those skeptical of climate action, can back policies such as enhanced energy efficiency or clean energy incentives when they aren’t depicted as only solutions to climate change.
“This is about framing. In blue states, an initiative may be touted as an environmental justice measure, but the same policy may not be viewed as an environmental justice issue in a red state,” where it can be framed is simply providing citizens more access to information, such as pollution data, Hunt said.
At the state level, even some Republicans have sought to inject environmental justice considerations in environmental decisions.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) on Aug. 18 signed an agreement with surrounding states working to clean up the Chesapeake Bay to recruit leadership, staff, appointees and volunteers in the cleanup effort “that reflect the diversity of people living within the Chesapeake Bay region.”
The multistate agreement also pledges to ensure benefits of restoration and other programs “are distributed in a fair and equitable manner without adverse, disproportionate impacts on vulnerable populations” including historically underrepresented communities and people of color, according to a statement from the Chesapeake Executive Council.
But in at least one state, environmental justice has met with GOP resistance. Arizona Rep. John Fillmore (R) last year introduced a bill that would bar schools from including any discussion of “economic and social implications” regarding environmental topics.
Justin Wood, director of organizing and strategic research at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, said environmental justice concerns are likely to continue to gain more traction at the state and local level, at least in the near term.
“We absolutely need a federal government that regulates and sets standards,” Wood said. “But a very important environmental justice principle is that communities have self-determination about what takes place in their communities.”
Catherine Flowers, an Alabama activist and founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, sees progress in Virginia, California, and other states. But those actions still don’t go far enough, she said.
“The part that is missing in these state efforts is making sure that the people impacted by these projects should be made a priority in the cleanup of these sites, and made a priority in alleviating the problems caused” by failing to consider those impacts for decades, she said.