Environmental Justice Leaders Look for a Focus on Disproportionately Impacted Communities of Color

They want Trump’s rollbacks rescinded and renewed emphasis on justice and equity via enforcement of federal law, from the Clean Air Act to FEMA recovery aid.

"Black towns matter" painted on the street in Barrett, near Fred Barrett’s home. Credit: Spike Johnson
"Black towns matter" painted on the street in Barrett, Texas, a historically Black town outside Houston adjacent to the French Limited Superfund hazardous waste site. After Hurricane Harvey in 2017, residents of Barrett worried that flooding had spread contaminants from the site into the town. Credit: Spike Johnson

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For environmental justice advocates who have spent decades fighting to protect communities from polluters, the new year cannot come too soon. After four years of the Trump administration shredding the Environmental Protection Agency into “little tidbits,” as President Donald Trump put it during his first campaign, change is in the air. 

President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to make the climate crisis and environmental justice guiding principles of his administration from day one, Jan. 20. It’s a huge promise—and a tall order.

 Even as the Trump administration winds down, it is working to scale back dozens of environmental protections. In recent weeks, it has pushed to remove penalties for power plants that leak contaminants into waterways, roll back oversight of mine safety and sell oil leases in the Arctic National Wildlife refuge.The efforts cap four years of gutting or cutting more than 100 laws and policies.


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Trump has unburdened fossil fuel energy producers from environmental reviews, rules and penalties designed to protect air, water, land and wildlife and communities imperiled by polluting industries in their backyards.

As the new administration readies for its start, Inside Climate News asked several environmental justice leaders what they want to see from the Biden administration.

Robert Bullard, often called the father of the environmental justice movement, is the distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University. This year he helped relaunch the disbanded Black Environmental Justice Network, which he co-founded in 1991:

Justice was on the ballot in the November election and Biden won. Now the incoming Biden-Harris administration needs to apply a justice and equity lens in all of its work, policies and programs. Environmental justice is climate justice, economic justice, health justice, energy justice, transportation justice and racial justice. 

The administration needs to move quickly to dust off and strengthen the EJ Executive Order 12898—strategies of the dozen federal departments that make up the Interagency Working Group (IWG). He needs to reinstate and strengthen the more than 100 environmental regulations weakened or rolled back in the Trump administration—such as the Clean Air Act, Chemical Safety Act, Clean Water Acts, National Environmental Policy Act and related laws and regulations; ensure EPA regional administrators are diverse since people of color in 46 states live with more air pollution than whites; build back strong civil rights and environmental divisions at the U.S. Justice Department that support environmental justice and equal protection enforcement in the states where violations occur.

Last but not least, he needs for environmental and climate planning to be viewed through an equity lens, especially addressing FEMA’s disaster recovery funding and buyouts. They inherently benefit affluent white communities—leaving behind the most vulnerable populations in flood-prone properties. 

Ramón Cruz is president of the Sierra Club. He started his environmental justice career in Puerto Rico, working to get the Navy to disband its bombing range on the island of Vieques. Cruz assumed his current post as the Sierra Club announced that it would be focusing on environmental justice:

As we head into 2021, we are inspired by the recent union of frontline and EJ organizations with national green organizations under the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform and we hope that the Biden-Harris administration will listen and follow the lead of the EJ Leaders involved in the platform. 

We urge the new administration to reduce pollution in environmental justice communities, fully address all risks from pollution and target resources in a way that prioritizes environmental and climate justice communities. 

We support Biden’s plan to have an all-of-government approach on EJ instead of just delegating it to the traditional environmental agencies and we applaud the efforts to put science in the center of all decisions.  

This is the way to address the cumulative impacts that have affected low-income communities and communities of color for so long. We are hopeful that the Build Back Better Plan will result in better infrastructure and sustainable jobs for our communities. 

Addressing systemic issues like racism and access to healthcare are also environmental issues. We hope to see many of these EJ leaders appointed to key positions in the administration so that we have a government that mirrors the diverse nation that we are. 

Gladys Limon is the executive director of the California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA), a coalition of 10 environmental justice groups throughout the state. The alliance is focused on supporting and creating policies that protect disadvantaged communities from bearing the brunt of fossil fuel pollution and other environmental hazards and offenses:

At a time when people throughout the nation are heightening demands for racial justice and the link between long-term pollution exposure and Covid-19 deaths is proven, the new administration needs to center communities of color in developing transformative solutions that effectively reduce local pollution and advance a just transition to a 100 percent renewable energy economy. 

Nicole Horseherder is the co-founder of To’Nizhoni Ani, which translates to “Sacred Water Speaks.” She is a farmer, renewable energy activist and relentless watchdog of the fossil fuel plants operating on the Navajo Nation. She lives off-the-grid in remote Black Mesa, Arizona, where, she says, residents are experiencing the effects of climate change with acute weather extremes:

Of course here on the Navajo Nation we’ve been pushing hard for Biden to be elected. Where I’m from, Black Mesa, the way things are going here with climate change, we’d rather go in there knowing that somebody is going to take us seriously. 

We know that with Trump, he didn’t take our issues into account at all. He didn’t even like Natives. I don’t even know what he thinks of us, but I know that he is not somebody we could move forward with and work with. 

Going forward, it’s up to us to be really smart and to be really specific and to be really clear about what needs to happen. A lot of the things regarding climate change are happening right now on our lands—we’re living it.

This year, we had no corn. It didn’t make it. It kind of makes me feel empty like something’s missing. People out there who have running water, and could turn on their lights and can go to the grocery store, they don’t feel it as much. We’re in the middle of it. Biden says he is on it, he will be a willing ear and participant, so that needs to happen right away. We can’t wait any more.