Cancer Alley groups want to know how a new industry is impacting health. This bill could require it.
Rebooting a 2020 environmental bill aims to bolster protections for black, indigenous and low-income communities often disproportionately impacted by pollution — a documented problem across Louisiana.
Made by Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva, a Democrat, the “Environmental Justice for All Act” tries to tackle a wide range of issues: codifying President Joe Biden’s executive orders on environmental justice, creating grants to help with research and health in overburdened areas, and expanding the federal impact communication process environment of major projects.
But one of its key provisions would address one of the biggest complaints from Louisiana advocates: assessing the cumulative impact of industrial projects on the health of residents.
“The cumulative effect is the right to know not just what a small factory in Formosa is going to do, but what the accumulation of 25 along that stretch does,” Grijalva, who chairs the House Natural Resources, said on Saturday. Committee, during a chemical tour. factories in the parishes of St. John and St. James.
While the problem is not unique to Louisiana, advocates point to the 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans as the poster child for environmental injustice. Nicknamed “Cancer Alley”, the region, which includes the parishes visited by Grijalva, is home to more than 150 petrochemical plants and to research found that low-income and black residents there have a higher cumulative cancer risk than whiter and wealthier areas.
As recently as 2020, when COVID-19 spread rampantly, a study reinforced this finding by examining census tract data which showed that a higher air pollution burden was associated with higher percentages of black residents and increased unemployment. Higher death rates from the virus were associated with exposure to respiratory and immunological risks – and a greater proportion of black residents.
Although companies are required to keep pollution below a legal threshold, that limit doesn’t necessarily protect human health, said Tulane Environmental Law Center scientist Kimberly Terrell, especially if other sources nearby are emitting a similar level of a chemical with similar hazards.
“There’s nothing to protect people from combined exposures,” she said.
After visiting toxic hotspots across the country to promote his bill, Grijalva said residents’ concerns were similar to those of residents of river parishes: how will a new industrial facility impact the air quality, especially when built next to various existing facilities?
“The commonalities are that it’s usually the local communities and leaders who seem to face insurmountable obstacles,” he said. “Concentrated power – political and economic.”
The bill, he said, would require federal and state agencies to conduct cumulative impact analyzes when considering whether to grant a new license or license renewal under quality of service laws. in the air or on the water.
Currently, they are not needed in most situations, although environmental groups that sue agencies for projects often ask for them. The US Army Corps of Engineers is currently conducting a cumulative impact study of a proposed $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics complex in St James Parish after legal challenges over the past two years.
The analyzes provided for in the bill would relate to a defined area and would study whether the combined effect of all the pollution emitted nearby poses a risk to public health.
Currently, when the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality reviews cumulative effects, it looks at total exposure to a single pollutant from different sources, rather than all chemicals that could contribute to a particular disease. , Terrell said.
“Each pollutant is essentially considered in isolation when it comes to health impacts,” she said.
Environmental advocates like General Russell Honoré, who founded the Green Armysaid the bill’s protections are overdue.
“If you’re in a gated community, as we call it here, you could have a factory on one side, a factory on the other side, the factory on the other side of the river. Depending on which direction the wind is blowing, you get a cumulative effect,” Honoré said on Saturday.
Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Greg Langley said if passed, the Environmental Protection Agency would define the scope of terms such as cumulative impact, and states should wait for the federal agency to develop new rules to guide their processes.
Langley, however, did not answer questions about DEQ’s current processes for cumulative impact assessments or elaborate on how these would change if the bill were passed.
House Republicans on the Natural Resources Committee, including Louisiana Rep. Garret Graves, have expressed strong opposition to the legislation, going so far as to question the premises of environmental justice and systemic racism during of a virtual hearing in February.
Graves, who feels the federal licensing process is already riddled with unnecessary red tape, said he doesn’t believe the project’s funders intentionally discriminate against people.
“It’s a dangerous trajectory for us to force this conspiracy of racism on all of these decisions,” Graves said in February.
But environmental justice experts say intent isn’t what qualifies a situation as environmental racism as much as impact.
On Tuesday, he also argued that the bill could worsen already rising energy prices by increasing royalties on oil, gas and coal leases.
“It’s very difficult to understand how putting additional regulatory hurdles or increasing the cost of energy is something that’s actually going to empower or help disadvantaged communities, which are the most price-sensitive communities for these items,” said Graves.
In addition to increasing royalty rates, new fees would be added on non-producing oil and gas leases, or on leases used for drilling less than 90 days per year, and the bill’s creators view it as a incentive for oil and gas companies to use leases they manage as Biden and conservation groups have criticized producers for “hoarding” of public land amid record profits. This fee would also be added to all new federal leases.
Half of the additional revenue collected from the fee increases would go into a federal just transition fund, while the other half would go to the states. Money from the fund would create grants for communities that have historically been economically dependent on fossil fuels — like many in Louisiana.
Rep. Clay Higgins, who represents southwest Louisiana where residents live in another industry hot spot, said he also strongly opposes the bill. He cited similar concerns about impacts on the domestic oil and gas industry. Neither member of Congress has offered an alternative solution to address the public health concerns that prompted the bill.
But Rep. Troy Carter, the only Louisiana Democrat whose district includes “Cancer Alley,” signed on as a co-sponsor after pledging his commitment to environmental justice issues. during last year’s campaign. He said the provisions would ensure that people don’t have to “die for their job”.
“The suggestion that somehow everyone is anti-business and we don’t care about jobs – of course people do care about jobs. Of course, people care about taxation. … But none of that matters if you don’t have safe and healthy communities,” Carter said Tuesday. “Because these same people who are running these pumps, who are running these processes, are human beings.”
Louisiana Representatives Julia Letlow and Steve Scalise did not respond to requests for comment.
Grijalva wants to have a vote in the House by the end of September, should he leave the committee. He and Carter said they feel cautiously optimistic about Bill’s future.
In the Senate, Democrat of Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth also introduced the bill. No major climate or environmental legislation has passed the Senate since Biden took office, and Graves said he expects her to die there.