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Health, Science, Environment

Illinois Sen. Duckworth Unveils Sweeping Environmental Justice Legislation

Illustration_RiciHoffarth_pollution.jpg
Rici Hoffarth
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St. Louis Public Radio
The Environmental Justice for All Act would update the way the EPA issues clean air and water permits to include looking at their cumulative effect on the community.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth introduced legislation Thursday aimed at addressing environmental inequalities that low-income and nonwhite communities disproportionately face.

The Environmental Justice for All Act would refine existing civil rights and environmental law and create new programs to establish outdoor parks and recreation areas in communities where they are lacking. Duckworth, D-Illinois, calls the bill a "multipronged" approach to environmental justice.

“It basically is a framework for me to work with the Biden administration to address environmental injustice in our country,” she said.

Duckworth’s legislation is similar to a bill by the same name filed last August by now-Vice President Kamala Harris. Duckworth was one of the original sponsors of that bill, too.

Changes to current law

A key change would affect the way the Environmental Protection Agency issues and renews industrial and other business operating permits, to include looking at their total effect on a community.

“Right now, when the EPA grants permits, under the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, they don’t explicitly look at the cumulative effect to see how many other permits have been granted in that particular neighborhood,” Duckworth said.

She explained that the Metro East is a prime example of an industrialized region that could benefit from this change. The current system has allowed heavy industry to multiply in communities that are often nonwhite and lower income, Duckworth said.

“They become the place when you have another polluting industry, you just say, ‘Put them over there in East St. Louis, because that’s where all the other heavy industries are,’” she said. “We have to look at what the cumulative effects of literally decades of industry being located in the same place, over and over, has done to the environment.”

The act also updates the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to say, in effect, the right to a clean environment is a civil right. Additionally it reinforces parts of the National Environmental Policy Act to protect historically harmed communities from actions that require environmental impact statements, assessments or other documents under NEPA.

New programs

The act also establishes a handful of grant programs, including ones for state, local and tribal governments to help establish access to outdoor parks and recreation areas in communities of color and funding for community-based research and education that addresses environmental injustices.

The bill lays out specific funding for nonprofit, community-based organizations engaged in these issues, too, which could be significant for places like Centreville.

The small, majority Black and low-income community in the Metro East has faced persistent flooding issues, with raw sewage often bubbling up into residents’ lawns or homes, for decades.

Local leaders recently applied for a FEMA grant to fix the sewers, but the long-standing flooding issues have eroded some residents’ trust in their leaders so much that they don’t expect to see that funding if it's approved.

“They’re stepping on this money before it comes down to us and when it gets down, ain't nothin here,” said Centreville resident Walter Byrd, at a recent virtual town hall meeting organized by Centreville Citizens for Change.

Duckworth’s legislation could provide an avenue for citizens to bypass the local government to get funding to fix the sewers.

The bill will likely face challenges in the evenly split Senate, where under current rules, it will need the support of 10 Republican senators to pass.

Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid

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