What Environmental Justice Looks Like (And Why It Matters) | Opinion

The Biden administration's recent announcement of a Justice Department effort to hold industrial polluters accountable for damage done to communities of color, Indigenous and low-income communities is an important step forward. For too long, these communities have suffered disproportionately from pollution and climate change. And that suffering is often fatal; across the globe, pollution contributes to nine million deaths every year.

Every person, no matter where they're born—whether it's the green mountains of Vermont or the deserts and canyons of Arizona—deserves pure air, clean water and an environment that allows them to thrive. Yet deep disparities and injustices persist all over this country. We know the work to advance environmental justice must be done, but how that work involves and affects American communities, both rural and urban, is another question.

Environmental justice is a seldom-used term in rural America, for example, even though disproportionate environmental impacts and burdens are just as damaging there as they are in urban areas. Vermont, one of the most rural states in the nation, was one of the few states without an environmental justice policy, until recently. These last holdouts could lead one to assume rural communities don't face the same issues as others; on the contrary, they do.

In Vermont, when Tropical Storm Irene hit the state hard in 2011, mobile home residents suffered almost half of all flooding incidents, despite constituting less than 10 percent of the state's population. And in keeping with trends across the country, BIPOC Vermonters are seven times more likely to have gone without heat in the past year and more than two times as likely to struggle to afford electricity. Seventy-six percent of Vermonters of color, meanwhile, live in "nature-deprived" areas, compared with only 20 percent of white Vermonters.

On the other side of the country, in Arizona, the toxic legacy of unmitigated mineral mining has contaminated the scarce groundwater resources of nearby communities. Many of these communities, like the Havasupai and Hualapai Tribes, are still fighting against new mining operations today.

Environmental injustices like these are visible across the nation, with schools and homes in low-income communities battling lead poisoning and inadequate infrastructure, rates of cancer and illness skyrocketing near superfund sites and legacy asbestos mines, poor living conditions remaining the norm for migrant farmworkers—the list goes on.

Climate protest
People carry signs at the March for Science in collaboration with Extinction Rebellion NYC and other organizations on April 23, 2022 in New York, one day after Earth Day. Bryan R. Smith / AFP/Getty Images

The unequal impacts of climate change and environmental burdens mean years taken off the lives of some and not others. We see these trends again and again, with communities of color, Indigenous, rural and low-income communities suffering the most. What's painfully clear is that there's an intersection between poverty, pollution and political power in this country that we must address if we are ever to ensure everyone's right to a healthy environment.

That is why we are both leading efforts to ensure a healthier, more equitable future for all. In Vermont, one of us has been leading the legislative effort to ensure that everyone has equitable access to energy and environmental benefits and that no community bears a disproportionate burden of climate consequences. And that effort just became law last week.

Now, Vermont can identify its most overburdened communities and spend efficiently and equitably to improve lives. It can prioritize climate resilience that centers underserved and overburdened communities. And it will be able to ensure that environmental decision-making processes give impacted communities seats at the table.

In Congress, one of us is leading the Environmental Justice for All Act to nationally remedy the fact that low-income communities, Tribal and Indigenous communities and communities of color have been shut out of the decision-making process and left without the tools to fight back when big corporations set up shop in their backyards.

If this act becomes law, the U.S. government will be able to support communities as they transition away from greenhouse gas-dependent economies, provide greater public health protections for vulnerable communities, strengthen the Civil Rights Act and improve federal agencies' environmental justice work.

There is so much work to do on all of these fronts, at both federal and state levels. It's all needed. It's been a long time coming to get America as a country, and states like Vermont and Arizona, to commit to environmental justice. But we are finally getting there—and now the hard work begins.

Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) is chair of the House Natural Resources Committee. Kesha Ram Hinsdale is a Vermont State Senator.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.