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Climate and Environment

A Federal Bill Aims To Tackle Environmental Injustice Holistically

A oil drilling rig looms as smoke from a flare burns in the background of a residential street.
A drilling rig right across the street from environmental justice advocate Ashley Hernandez's home in Wilmington.
(Courtesy Ashley Hernandez
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Pacoima is one of the hottest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Wilmington has some of the city’s highest concentrations of oil wells. And Boyle Heights is surrounded by three major freeways.

These areas have something in common: they’re primarily home to Latino, Asian and Black families and they have some of the worst pollution and least green space in L.A.

That’s no accident. The legacies of segregation and racist housing and zoning policies during the 1930s, continue to impact communities today— and make them even more susceptible to the worst impacts of the climate crisis:

  • Extreme heat
  • Pollution
  • Poor air quality
  • Contaminated water

A federal bill authored by U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat who represents southern Arizona, aims to help rectify the issue.

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The Environmental Justice for All Act, Grijalva said, would — for the first time — require the consideration of the cumulative and disproportionate impacts of environmental pollution and historic disinvestment on communities of color.

Grijalva spent the last few days in L.A., meeting with community members and advocates from Maywood to Long Beach about the bill.

“It's a bridge,” Grijalva said. “It’s a bridge that accepts the reality of the root cause of why we need this legislation, which is racism and a system of dumping on the poor and the disenfranchised politically.”

What Would Change Under This Proposed Law

Currently, federal law doesn’t require that the cumulative impacts of pollution or disinvestment in a neighborhood be taken into account when a new refinery or power plant in proposed for that community.

This bill would change that. And Angelo Logan, a Long Beach resident and long-time environmental justice advocate, said that change is critical.

“This is one of the commonalities of environmental justice communities— the constant assault of multiple facilities, multiple impacts,” said Logan, who co-founded grassroots group East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice.

Among other things, the bill would also:

  • Amend the Civil Rights Act to allow private citizens to sue based on the disparate impacts of pollution, which is currently not the case. 
  • Distribute $75 million a year to communities most affected by pollution to support projects to address environmental and health concerns in those communities.
  • Require that impacted communities be consulted earlier in the process than currently required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
  • Establish a fund using revenues from new fees on the oil, gas, and coal industries to support communities and workers in the transition away from fossil fuels. 
  • You can read the full text of the bill here.

Stronger Legal Tools For Residents

Grijalva said the legislation is designed to give communities stronger legal tools to combat pollution in their backyards. He said that's especially important since the Supreme Court recently undercut the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate pollution and greenhouse gases.

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“For a lot of important social and justice issues in this country, the last point of redress has been the judicial process,” Grijalva said. “And I see that door closed. So now I think it shifts to local communities to really make the situation more democratic at a local level. And nationally, to codify protections because this court won't.”

A previous version of the bill failed in 2015, but with Democrats now in control of the House, Grijalva said he has higher hopes. After a year of traveling the country to listen to communities on the front line of pollution and environmental degradation, Grijalva reintroduced the bill in 2020, incorporating that feedback. His latest tour that brought him to L.A. was to get further feedback on the final text of the bill.

Logan, who has been involved with crafting the bill for the past three years, said that the ground-up rather than top-down approach was a departure. He said typically feedback from residents of communities most impacted by environmental injustices is ignored — they're not even invited to the table.

“It's important as we move forward that we make sure that civil rights, environmental justice — that these kinds of protections are codified in law,” Logan said. “That they're the law of the land, so that we don't hear in our communities yet again: 'Isn't that illegal?'”

The bill is likely to face challenges, but Grijalva said he doesn’t plan to compromise.

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