The Pennsylvania Democratic Policy Committee and Legislative Black Caucus held a hearing on enviromental justice in Harrisburg on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022 (Screen Capture).
From transportation infrastructure to historic redlining and illegal dumping, experts and advocates told state lawmakers that they were “tired of talking” and instead wanted action to address environmental justice issues that disproportionately affect communities of color.
“I encourage you all to focus your energy and prioritize legislation that aims to invest in environmental justice areas, but also amends previous legislative mistakes,” Anthony David Jr., a Harrisburg University student and member of the Environmental Justice Advisory Board told Wednesday’s joint session of the House Democratic Policy Committee and the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus.
“I challenge you all to take time out of your routine for actionable items such as mutual aid efforts that help mitigate the impacts of living in an environmental justice area,“ David said.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection defines an environmental justice area as “any census tract where 20 percent or more individuals live at or below the federal poverty line, and/or 30 percent or more of the population identifies as a non-white minority,” based on U.S. Census Bureau data and federal guidelines for poverty.
“We need to start addressing the root of these issues,” David said.
Ashley Funk, executive director of Mountain Watershed Association, which operates primarily in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, told lawmakers that changes need to be made to the industrial permitting process overseen by DEP.
“DEP reviews and approves permits without taking into account existing sources of pollution in a community,” Funk said. “As long as an applicant meets the minimum requirements, DEP will issue them a permit to pollute — even in a community that may be inundated with existing facilities. In this way, DEP prioritizes industrial development over the protection of human and environmental health, and as a result, environmental justice communities continue to shoulder a disproportionate share of pollution.”
Funk said DEP should be required to evaluate the “cumulative impacts of new permits” to prevent overburdening communities. Similarly, Funk said that DEP should have the authority to deny permits due to environmental justice considerations.
Last October, state Reps. Malcolm Kenyatta, Donna Bullock, and Chris Rabb, all Philadelphia Democrats, introduced HB 2043, a bill that would allow DEP to reject facility building permits if the cumulative impact on a community is “too great to justify its approval.”
The bill was referred to the House Environmental Resources & Energy Committee last November, where it has yet to come up for a vote. The panel is chaired by Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler.
Rafiyqa Muhammad, a Harrisburg resident serving her second term on the DEP’s Environmental Justice Advisory Board, also told lawmakers that the environmental oversight agency — and the board — need more enforcement power.
Muhammad added that DEP and the board need more funding in addition to more “teeth” in their enforcement capabilities.
“We need more power,” Muhammad said, “No one is enforcing anything.”
Jamil Bey, founder and director of the UrbanKind Institute, a Pittsburgh-based social and equity think-tank, encouraged state lawmakers to look at the interconnectedness of issues such as climate change, housing, education, and healthcare.
“Families in neighborhoods that are now labeled as EJ (Environmental Justice) communities are also fighting for housing justice, education justice, economic justice, health and medical justice, and justice in the way that they are policed and in their interactions with courts,” Bey said. “As long as we continue to silo our efforts to address the inherent injustices in how the commonwealth treats its most vulnerable residents, we are going to continue to have such poor outcomes.”
Bey said that UrbanKind is working to bring advocates and organizations together around intersecting issues.
“This network engages institutions and policymakers to advance a pro-people agenda. We see this as a model for other regions to work for change at scale,” Bey said. “We urge you to continue to fight environmental injustices across the state with the recognition that it must be situated in the context of establishing justice in all contexts for all citizens.”
Democratic state lawmakers attending the hearing seemed to agree with testifiers that it’s time to move beyond rhetoric.
“We had a number of testifiers from various backgrounds who were talking about the impacts of environmental justice, whether they are from energy communities where there are coal fields or urban communities,” Rabb said. “Folks who have been doing this work for decades or just recently, but the common theme was we need action, and we need collaboration, and we need help and resources from our state government. Rhetoric is not enough.”
Bullock, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, acknowledged that any efforts to address environmental issues will also have to address racial disparities in communities across Pennsylvania.
“As we heard in testimony today, many of the biggest challenges facing our communities are rooted in race,” Bullock said. “In order to overcome these challenges – including poverty and environmental burdens – it is imperative we address and eliminate racial disparities by changing policies and some of the flawed practices we have seen in the past.”
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