Ensuring Environmental Justice and Health Protection

Millions of American families live in toxic clouds wafting from chemical plants and know the agony of hugging a child choking from asthma or holding the hand of a family member while they slowly succumb to cancer.

The Biden-Harris administration can finally attack these threats and put communities and public health first. They can deliver on their commitment to achieve real environmental justice for people too long denied opportunities and disproportionately burdened by pollution.

The Biden Promises and Why They Matter

To meaningfully help polluted communities, President-elect Biden has promised to “advance public health and economic opportunity for all Americans…and recognize that communities of color and low-income communities have faced disproportionate harm from climate change and environmental contaminants for decades.” The need for action is especially acute due to COVID-19, which has hit these communities hardest, causing a tidal wave of illness and deaths.

Chemical plants and industrial facilities surround the residential neighborhoods of an area known as "Cancer Alley" in Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Giles Clarke/Getty Images

Biden promised to organize across the government—particularly at EPA, the Justice Department, and the Department of Health and Human Services—to address environmental justice and health. Among other pledges, they vowed to:

  • Restore science to its rightful role;
  • Install new air and water monitoring;
  • Ensure notification and direct partnering with people in fence line communities;
  • Crack down on polluters;
  • Regulate toxics like PFAS “forever chemicals;”
  • Direct 40 percent of investment in clean energy and transit, sustainable housing, training, workforce development, and cleanup of legacy pollution towards communities of color and low-income communities. 

What Will It Take and Who Will Benefit?

To fulfill these promises, the incoming administration should both rescind disastrous Trump Administration actions and proactively tackle long-festering problems.

Immediate Action to Address COVID and its Fallout on Vulnerable People

As President-elect Biden has recognized, we should aggressively control and eradicate COVID-19. As the pandemic has spread, it has followed existing patterns of inequality adding to the cumulative impacts suffered by highly segregated and polluted communities. Effectively addressing the uneven vulnerability to disease will require undoing the multiple issues that allow environmental injustice to manifest and persist.

To ensure that job is done, he should take immediate action including adopting administration policies or legislation that: (1) place a national moratorium on water shutoffs, evictions, and foreclosures, and ensure a grace period for bill payment once the pandemic has subsided; (2) fund safe water distribution, filters and sanitation for homes without access to these necessities; (3) fund water systems so they can continue to operate despite massive revenue losses, tied to a prohibition on shutoffs and requirement to safely reconnect water; and (4) provide assistance to low-income and renter households so they can pay their rent, water, heating and energy bills.     

Addressing the Environmental Justice and Health Crises.

The administration should adopt strengthened environmental justice policies with robust funding to implement them, including aggressive enforcement of the Civil Rights Act’s prohibition on discrimination based on race, color or national origin (“Title VI”), and detailed NEPA reviews of government projects to ensure that environmental justice principles are observed.

The EPA Administrator should support environmental justice leaders in their call to reduce the cumulative impacts of pollution. The agency must vigorously control air pollution from industrial facilities, freight, heavy-duty trucks, fleets, ocean going vessels and locomotives.  And it should reverse the Trump EPA’s policy of ignoring exposure to environmental sources of pollution—like poisoned air and contaminated drinking water—when evaluating the risks of chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act.

Climate change policies should specifically maximize improvements in toxic and conventional air pollution emissions and must address impacts in environmental justice communities. The administration should embrace environmental justice legislation that would take important steps such as reversing the Supreme Court’s Alexander v. Sandoval decision, which said that private parties don’t have a right to sue to enforce rules under the Civil Rights Act (Title VI) that prohibit actions that have a disparate-impact on people of color.

They also should improve monitoring and greatly reduce existing pollution burdens and preventing new exposures. Enforcement of environmental laws should be reinvigorated, with strong funding and management support at EPA and DOJ and an emphasis on environmental justice.  

Moreover, the Biden team should rescind destructive Trump administration actions, including revoking the Trump Dirty Water Rule (which seeks to eliminate Clean Water Act protections for the drinking water sources used by over 100 million Americans). They should rescind the Trump decisions refusing to ban the highly toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos and purporting to revoke the Obama Administration’s decision to regulate toxic rocket fuel component perchlorate in tap water. They also should strengthen the lead in drinking water rule, which the Trump Administration may weaken on its way out the door.

CDC on Unsplash

The PFAS pollution crisis also must be a high priority. The EPA should immediately follow through on the Biden promises by issuing a PFAS in tap water standard that is protective of vulnerable people, using its expedited authority for “urgent threats to health.”

They should list a PFAS as hazardous substances as promised under Superfund and RCRA and should regulate PFAS under the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. EPA also should turn off the spigot of new PFAS and new PFAS uses and establish a moratorium on PFAS foam incineration and land disposal until we figure out safe disposal methods, as well as fund research on effective and safe disposal techniques.

Investing in our communities and infrastructure and creating jobs

A key to success will be administration support and congressional enactment of major infrastructure investments. We should create jobs at a living wage and invest in sustainable, climate-resilient infrastructure for drinking water, stormwater and wastewater, mass transit, weatherization and affordable energy-efficient housing, green infrastructure and green space, especially in low-income communities and communities of color. Legislation should specifically target full removal of lead service lines and remediation of lead paint in housing.

Restoring Science

Success in these endeavors will depend upon strong adherence to unbiased, independent science. To achieve these ends, EPA should rescind the Censoring Science rule (which the Trump administration cynically called the “science transparency” rule), and the president and EPA should immediately adopt strong conflict of interest and scientific integrity policies that ensure that the independence of science (including EPA’s IRIS program) and scientific advisory boards do not include industry-funded scientists looking out for their paymasters.

An Unparalleled Opportunity

The Biden Administration should seize this important opportunity to ambitiously overhaul protections for environmental justice and health. We look forward to working with them to implement administratively and support in Congress the Environmental Justice for All Act (introduced by Reps. Grijalva & McEachin in the House and Senator Harris) and Water Justice Act (introduced by Senator Harris, and Reps. Kildee and Brenda Lawrence). 

Now is the time to take bold action to attack both the public health crisis and the racial and environmental injustices that have accumulated for generations.

About the Authors

Erik D. Olson

Senior Strategic Director, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

Mae Wu

Senior Director, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

Melissa Lin Perrella

Senior Director, Environmental Justice, Healthy People & Thriving Communities program

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