HARRISBURG, Pa. (Erie News Now) – Wednesday, the House Democratic Policy Committee and the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus hosted a joint hearing on the Commonwealth’s environmental justice efforts, and where they need improvement.
According to the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), an Environmental Justice (EJ) area is defined 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. The areas are scattered throughout the entire commonwealth.
Today, testimony focused on how these areas have historically faced a disproportionate share of adverse environmental impacts, sometimes resulting in poor health including cancer and asthma and creating poor living conditions, especially in communities of color.
“As we heard in testimony today, many of the biggest challenges facing our communities are rooted in race,” said Representative Donna Bullock (D-Philadelphia) who serves as the Legislative Black Caucus Chair. “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,” she added.
In addition to disparities as the result of past policies and practices, testifiers at today’s hearing hit on a wide-range of issues spanning from illegal dumping and air quality, all the way to food deserts, transportation inequality and the cumulative impact all these factors have had on economic growth and community health.
A specific example pointed to was the historical lack of input from community members in burdened areas during the permit application or renewal process for nearby factories or facilities in those areas.
“This is all we’ve got, we’ve all got to breathe the same air, we’ve all got to drink the same water, we’ve all got to walk the same earth,” said Rafiyqa Muhammad, a Harrisburg resident and member of the DEP Environmental Justice Advisory Board (EJAB). “Some of this is irreplaceable and irreparable. You’ve got to stop thinking in silos, this is a holistic approach. We’ve got work to do,” Muhammad added.
House Bill 2043 would require facilities within these areas to prepare environmental impact assessments before being considered for permit approval. That would include taking things like property value, water and air quality, and other factors into consideration.
Testifiers and Democratic lawmakers at the hearing hope legislation like HB 2043, as well as the creation of the Environmental Protections Agency’s (EPA) new office dedicated to environmental justice and civil rights, recently announced by the Biden Administration, will create tangible results.
“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,” said Representative Chris Rabb (D-Philadelphia). “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,” Rep. Rabb added.
Community advocates across the state say they’re losing patience and are literally growing sick and tired of inaction.
“This needs to stop. We’re tired as residents, there’s a lot of them like me out here. It gets to the point, you just want to vomit with some of the stuff that we have to deal with,” said Muhammad.
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