Environmental Justice and Environmental Rights

The Southern Environmental Law Center issued a press release this month about a landmark environmental justice bill. “The Environmental Justice for All Act, introduced by Chair Raúl Grijalva, Rep. Donald McEachin and Sen. Tammy Duckworth with significant community input, is a far-reaching approach to seeking environmental justice, health equity, and climate justice for underserved communities. Among its comprehensive approaches, the bill would

  • strengthen the Civil Rights Act of 1964;
  • require consideration of cumulative impacts in permitting decisions under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act;
  • work to establish more equitable access to parks and outdoor recreation;
  • require meaningful community involvement, including tribal representation, under the National Environmental Policy Act; and
  • provide funds to support communities and workers as they move away from polluting industries.

President Biden also recently announced the members of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC) to advise on how to address current and historic environmental injustices. You can read the press statement here.  Both the proposed legislation and the council are important steps in ensuring that environmental justice is proactively addressed at a federal level. 

What does the Environmental Justice for All Act mean for Maryland?

This is exciting news that the U.S. Congress is considering a holistic approach to redress environmental injustice in our country and to have legislation at the federal level that would address key issues that affect Marylanders, including assessing cumulative impacts of pollution on communities and requiring meaningful community involvement. Cumulative impacts of harm due to environmental pollution and degradation are not being addressed today and we have a Maryland Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities that has been called out by the community as needing serious reform. 

How would this federal law work in concert with an environmental rights amendment?

The Maryland Campaign for Environmental Human Rights (MDEHR) supports the goal of addressing environmental injustice and supports this effort at the federal level. If we had a federal bill that addressed key concerns of cumulative impacts, community involvement and helping communities transition away from polluting industries, it would mean that Marylanders would have federal support in key areas that negatively impact them today. However the federal bill stops short of actually protecting the right to a healthful environment and ensuring that this legal protection is in place for future generations. 

MDEHR believes protecting the right to clean air, water, land and a stable climate are critical for the public health of Marylanders. A healthful environment is needed to sustain the health of the people who live in our state and the health of our natural resources is essential for the sustainability of our environment.  A state constitutional amendment is an important legal protection that enables individuals to hold the state accountable if their constitutional right to a healthful environment is infringed upon but it also allows the state of Maryland to hold private interests accountable for polluting Maryland’s natural resources. A state constitutional amendment would also work in concert with legislation to address specific issues like the ones proposed by the Environmental Justice For All Act.   

What actions are being taken at a state level on environmental justice?

The Maryland General Assembly is currently considering the concept of meaningful community involvement in HB1207 Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities. One of the key provisions of the bill is requiring commission membership to reflect the diversity of the state and for the commission to seek early and constant input from and host meetings in certain communities. This bill has passed the House and is under review in the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee. The Maryland League of Conservation Votes is organizing outreach in support of this bill.  You can write a letter of support here.    

In addition, MDEHR believes the strongest protection for communities in Maryland is to pass legislation to address specific issues (eg. a commission that truly represents the communities it purports to protect) and to also legally  protect the right to a healthful environment. The two approaches work in concert together. The amendment forms the foundation for legal protections for both people and planet and specific environmental legislation addresses particular issues as they arise. 

Do you value clean air, water, land and a stable climate?  Join the Maryland Campaign for Environmental Human Rights. You can read and sign our MDEHR Pledge here and sign up for campaign email updates here.