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Commentary & Opinion

Stephen Gottlieb: The Environmental Justice For All Act

Last year, Rep. Raúl Grijalva [D-AZ3], now chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, introduced the Environmental Justice for All Act in the House and Senator, now Vice President, Kamala Harris introduced it in the Senate.


This year the bill has been reintroduced in both houses – in the House by Rep. Grijalva with Rep. Donald McEachin [D-VA4], and in the Senate by Senator Tammy Duckworth [D-IL], chair of the Environment and Public Works, Fisheries, Water and Wildlife subcommittee.

To save the climate, we’ll have to involve everyone. The Environmental Justice for All Act is certainly part of that battle. I hope the infrastructure bill will end up including the environmental infrastructure President Biden has been fighting for. Republicans once claimed to support improving the national infrastructure but apparently want to fix as little as possible for as few people as possible and heaven forbid they leave improvement of environmental infrastructure in the President’s package, or become involved in the fight to save the climate that gives us life.

My African-American clients weren’t so reticent about the environment. I had a client in St. Louis called Black Survival, formed to seek environmental justice, led by Freddie Mae Brown. They sought my help to stop emission of toxic gasses in a minority area, resulting in a consent agreement with Monsanto. And they sought my help to stop a highway through their community.

Freddie and I had an understanding about how to fight the highway – I’d fight for an environmental impact statement, which would buy them time and publicity, but Black Survival would organize and canvass door-to-door for signatures on a petition to stop it. I got testimony from experts in just about every area of scholarship, both natural and social sciences, and we focused on the damage being done to the people. Ultimately I accompanied Freddie when she presented an enormous petition to the Mayor of St. Louis. To stop the highway, we took our local support to the head of the Federal Highway Administration in Washington, who killed the project.

In addition to driving people out, that highway would have separated people from their churches, businesses from their customers, professionals from their clients, and people from their jobs. Only those whose property would have been taken to build the highway would have been compensated by eminent domain. All the business value and all the social strength of an ongoing community would have been wiped out. So-called urban renewal was never a blessing for the communities that were supposedly renewed. All over the country projects were built to destroy Black communities. It’s about time we put some effort into repairing the damage. We’ll all be better off encouraging Black communities to thrive. And there’s a lot of support in the Black community to improve the environment.

On so many pieces of legislation, Sen. Manchin of West Virginia is crucial. We’ll see how much he can bring himself to support it. West Virginia has had its mountains strip-mined, its waterways fouled and its coal mining collapse, so there ought to be support for the environment, infrastructure and the jobs provisions in the bill aimed at states like West Virginia which lost employment in fossil fuel industries. They should all wise up. My heart is in the passage and signing into law of the Environmental Justice for All Act. At last.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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