State efforts to pass environmental justice legislation this year have been a “glass half full,” but still better than federal efforts so far, advocates say.
Legislation has failed, or is deemed likely to die, in nine of the 16 states that have taken up major environmental justice measures in the first half of 2021, according to Bloomberg Government state legislation tracking. Such proposals target long-standing environmental inequities in low-income neighborhoods and areas where many residents are people of color.
Nevertheless, justice advocates say the state-level activity has outpaced any in Congress.
“Environmental justice remains a priority in the states—we wouldn’t be seeing these bills if it wasn’t,” said Angela Manso, national outreach director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Legislation is the art of negotiation, and that takes work and that takes time. It isn’t over yet.”
The fossil fuel industry, including power generators and oil and gas producers, have been lobbying state lawmakers for decades. But the focus on environmental justice will continue to grow, she said.
“Folks have found their voice,” she said. “They may not have been successful this go-round, but there’s a renewed sense of urgency to get it done.”
Opponents of environmental justice bills, meanwhile, say such proposals won’t accomplish their goals, arguing that they could end up doing injustice to workers who depend on the energy sector for their jobs.
“Someone goes out to my district, goes to the local coffee shop or something, and starts talking about some of this—it is going to be an ugly, ugly meeting,” said Colorado state Rep. Rod Pelton (R), who opposed an environmental justice bill in that state’s session. “So I hope people come prepared by what they’ll be faced with in that situation.”
The Pennsylvania Legislature has seen a surge of “environmental injustice” bills this year, said Michael Schroeder, professor of history at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa.
Republican lawmakers are trying to make it harder for communities to ban hydraulic fracturing within their jurisdictions, he said. Environmental justice advocates “are having to fight a rear-guard action against very powerful special interest lobbies,” he said.
Advocates nationally are pushing for pollution reductions but also restorative justice and reinvestment in communities, said Katie Belgard, government affairs director for Conservation Colorado.
“We need to get impacted people to the table and push for change,” she said.
VIDEO: Environmental justice gained traction in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Forty years later, impacted communities still have limited legal options to combat negative environmental impacts.
Three States’ Approvals
So far, Colorado, Rhode Island, and Washington are the only states to approve significant environmental justice legislation, and Washington simply amended an existing program.
Rhode Island’s focus on environmental justice was one aspect of a new, sweeping climate law (2021-S 0078A, 2021-H 5445A) directing the state to develop a plan to reduce climate emissions to net-zero by 2050. The plan addresses environmental injustices, public health inequities, and a fair employment transition as fossil-fuel jobs are replaced by green energy jobs, according to the Rhode Island General Assembly.
Still pending is a bill that would require the state department of environmental management to create environmental justice areas. Meanwhile, several other environmental justice proposals in Rhode Island either died or were recommended held for further study.
Colorado lawmakers approved legislation establishing a substantially new environmental justice program, joining 10 other states with such a program. The bill (H.B. 1266) would create a new environmental justice action task force in the state Department of Public Health and Environment that would recommendations practical ways for the state General Assembly to address inequities.
The bill also would define “disproportionately impacted community” and require the state’s air quality control commission to promote outreach to such communities. The state Senate on June 8 concurred with House amendments to the measure, sending it to Gov. Jared Polis (D), who is expected to sign it.
“With or without federal action, Coloradans know we need to put communities that have suffered the burden of pollution first, and we’re finally starting to do that,” said Jessica Gelay, Colorado government affairs manager for Western Resource Advocates, a Boulder-based environmental group. “You have to make rules to make sure it’s not just the industry voices at the table.”
States Best Positioned
President Joe Biden in January established the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council to confront longstanding environmental injustices and work to ensure that polluted, marginalized communities have greater input on policies and decisions.
But states are best positioned to promote environmental justice since “these issues are very local,” said Peggy Shepard, co-chair of the council and the co-founder and executive director of WeAct for Environmental Justice.
“The states know the issues certainly better than the federal government, and it’s an opportunity for local people to be more involved in state legislation,” she said. “The more local the legislation, the more impactful they will be.”
In the last few years, laws addressing environmental justice have passed in California, Washington, Minnesota, Illinois, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia and Maryland.
Oregon, Illinois Moves
In Oregon, which first passed an environmental justice law in 2008, the Senate approved a resolution (SCR 17) June 9 saying state agencies “will develop guidance for the consideration of environmental justice” in carrying out their responsibilities, and will consult with the state’s existing Environmental Justice Task Force to correct environmental injustices.”
Still pending is a bill (H.B. 2488) that would require Oregon to change land use planning goals to ensure environmental justice for disadvantaged communities. The session is set to end June 27.
Illinois lawmakers introduced more than 40 bills referencing environmental justice, according to Bloomberg Government’s state tracker. The Legislature failed to pass the two major proposals, a clean energy bill (S.B 1718, H.B. 804) with environmental justice provisions, and a bill (H.B. 4093) concerning how environmental justice communities are determined.
Wisconsin’s budget bill (S.B. 111) creates a new Office of Environmental Justice that would work with with state agencies to address how climate change affects vulnerable communities. A vote on the bill is expected by the end of June.
Three environmental justice bills are pending in Michigan, which has an existing Office of Environmental Justice.
Bills with environmental justice provisions failed in Minnesota, New Mexico, Texas, Hawaii, Georgia, Florida, and Vermont in addition to Illinois. Two bills still alive in Arizona were expected to die as that state continued to work on its budget.