Virginia Takes Big Step in Environmental Justice

Recognizing that environmental impacts often disproportionately harm low-income and minority populations, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has created the state’s first Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

The council is charged with advising the executive branch on policies to limit harm to disadvantaged communities and those most vulnerable to pollution and other climate change effects, and it comes at just the right time for Virginia, which has big problems facing its citizens.

The Vulnerability of Hampton Roads

The 1.7 million people of Hampton Roads, Virginia constitute one of the most vulnerable populations to sea level rise and storm surge in the country. They were spared in the last spate of hurricanes that ravaged the Gulf Coast and Atlantic regions, but they are no less susceptible to severe storms in the future—as are millions of other Virginians. The state’s mayors have been pleading for help at the state level for years, with the  former mayor of Norfolk declaring,  “It’s a threat we can no longer afford to ignore.”

The Asthma Capital of the Nation

Richmond recently claimed the dubious distinction of being named the “asthma capital” of America by the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America, topping the list of U.S. cities that are “the most challenging places to live with asthma.” In urban areas, traffic congestion and power plant emissions have been identified as the main sources of air pollution, triggering elevated incidents of asthma symptoms while also fueling stronger and more frequent storms.

Black children are four times more likely to be admitted to the hospital for asthma than white children, and Latino children are 40% more likely to die from asthma than their white counterparts, highlighting just one of the effects of pollution that disproportionately hurts minority and low-income children.

Nationally, seventy-one percent of blacks live in counties that were in violation of air pollution standards, compared to 58 percent of whites. Similarly, Hispanics are 165% more likely than whites to live in counties with unhealthy levels of particulate matter.

The placement of pollution sources near communities of color and the displacement of communities of color to highly contaminated areas, in fact, is a central concern for the environmental justice movement.

To state it simply, we do not all breathe the same air.

The Energy Burden Facing Minority Families

While the Commonwealth is making progress on clean energy solutions that will help limit the health and climate impacts of air pollution (see Virginia’s uptick from 33rd to 29th nationally in ACEEE’s most-recent state policy rankings), too often these solutions aren’t reaching communities that need it most.

In Richmond, one-third of black households and more than half of all low-income households have more than twice the energy burden of the average household in the city. The numbers are similar for the Commonwealth’s largest city—Virginia Beach. High energy burdens, which refers to the percentage of household income spent on energy bills, is a justice issue at its core because of its regressive impact on minority and low-income communities.

The good news is that Virginians want policy solutions to address this issue. In a recent poll, 84% of voters say that the state should do more to provide incentives for energy efficiency, a solution which would alleviate high energy burdens faced by struggling households. The same poll revealed that 61% of voters would be willing to pay a $0.50 monthly surcharge on their energy bills if those resources were directed to low-income energy efficiency programs.

This is an example of an innovative policy solution that could help restore energy equity, and a strong majority of Virginians are willing to make a personal sacrifice to help disadvantaged communities.

Governor McAuliffe did the right thing by creating this council. It is now up to his successor, Governor-elect Ralph Northam, to fully study environmental justice impacts in the Commonwealth and ensure a stronger and more just environment for all Virginians.

It’s urgent and it’s important if Virginia is to thrive in the face of the climate challenges ahead.  

About the Authors

Dawone Robinson

Eastern Region Co-Director, EEFA, Resilient Communities, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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