WASHINGTON —Louisiana activists are calling on Congress to bolster environmental justice protections at the federal level, in advance of a key vote in Congress next week.
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) heard from the environmental justice advocates at an online forum Thursday on Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” part of a virtual “tour” with communities across the country that have been harmed by pollution and development.
Grijalva and Virginia Democrat Donald McEachin are hosting the forums in an effort to build support for their Environmental Justice for All Act, which would add environmental claims to the Civil Rights Act. A massive House energy bill set for a floor vote includes 12 of the 15 sections of Grijalva’s environmental justice bill.
At issue are the disproportionate effects on members of marginalized communities who live near pipeline and power projects.
The NAACP estimates that 71% of Black Americans live in counties in violation of federal air pollution standards. In Louisiana, Black Americans are 32 percent of the population but represent 80 percent of those living within five miles of a polluting industrial facility, according to the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice.
Those communities often have worse health outcomes and higher rates of asthma and cancer, problems that have become more pronounced as the COVID-19 respiratory illness has added another threat.
“Something needs to be done. We need to change something,” Sharon Lavigne, a leader of the RISE St. James advocacy group, told Grijalva at the forum. “Something needs to be done, and it has to come from the federal level.”
Grijalva said the issue is gaining traction, with much of his bill included in the large energy package slated for a vote Sept. 24.
Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris also sponsored a companion bill in the Senate in July.
“I have been chipping at this rock a long time, and this is the time that I see an opportunity,” Grijalva said at the conclusion of the online forum, noting support from Harris and House Democratic leadership. “I think we have an opportunity here.”
‘We are asking someone to please help us.’
The issue hits home for Lavigne and other activists in St James Parish who have been fighting against the planned construction of a $9.4 billion manufacturing facility from Formosa Plastics.
The complex would double the toxic chemicals released into the air in St. James Parish, according to permits Formosa filed for the facility.
The area is already part of what is referred to as “Cancer Alley,” home to seven of the top 10 U.S census tracts with the highest cancer rates in the country, according to the EPA.
There are 150 chemical plants and refineries in the 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans.
“We are bombarded with air pollution, water pollution and soil pollution. We ask for someone to come in and help us in St. James, because our public officials are not helping us,” said Lavigne. “We are asking someone to please help us.”
Lavigne said local elected officials have been so interested in the potential economic boom, they have not taken health concerns into consideration. It has left the grassroots groups to fight against the construction without the support of any of their local elected officials.
“They were looking at jobs but they did not see the other side of it,” Lavigne told lawmakers.
When Gov. John Bel Edwards announced in 2018 that Formosa had chosen St. James Parish for its site, he said the project would create “a brighter economic future” with thousands of jobs and a multibillion-dollar impact on earnings and business purchases.
Rise St. James and other advocacy groups have fought the project on multiple fronts. They sued state and federal agencies, alleging they violated federal environmental law. The Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity filed a preliminary injunction to block construction following the discovery of burial sites of enslaved people on the property. Work has temporarily halted while the court considers the case.
Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, said the Formosa proposal is one in a long line of threats for communities of color in St. James and elsewhere.
“One thing is clear: because there are no real protections for our communities, as soon as you finish one fight, there is another right behind it,” Wright said. “It is almost like hurricanes, as soon as we get through one there is another lining up in the waters to come at us. This is the way we feel in Louisiana dealing with toxic pollution, and we are literally dying.”
Several recent studies have highlighted the effects of polluting infrastructure near Black, Latino and Native American communities.
A study from EPA in 2018 found nationwide disparities in air pollution — with Black Americans experiencing higher levels of air pollution than White Americans, even when adjusting for poverty. Another study from the National Institutes of Health in 2011 found that communities of color and low-income populations are disproportionately exposed to chemical releases.
And a study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences found “pollution inequity.” The study says that Black Americans are typically exposed to 56% more pollution than they produce.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) announced earlier this week that the House would vote on the wide-ranging energy bill, including some environmental justice provisions.
The House and the Republican-controlled Senate have been unable to come to agreement on many legislative packages. But the Senate last week resolved an issue that had previously halted its vote on a similar, more narrow, energy bill — clearing the way for potential progress.
But even if the provisions do not make it into law, Grijalva said the House vote is meaningful.
“I don’t know what the end conclusion will be and whether it will become law or what will happen in conference, but at this point the inclusion is a significant momentum-builder for the Environmental Justice for All bill,” Grijalva said.
Most significantly, it would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to explicitly give legal protections against discrimination based on “disparate impact.” It would counter a 2001 Supreme Court decision, Alexander v. Sandoval, that made it more difficult for communities of color to sue over pollution.
The bill also calls for more input from local communities under the National Environmental Policy Act when a project is proposed in an environmental justice community. And it gives the force of law to a Clinton-era executive order that directs federal agencies to develop environmental justice strategies.
It would also establish an environmental justice advisory council, create training programs across federal agencies and authorize environmental justice grants.