May 15, 2020

KENNEDY CALLS FOR APPOINTMENT OF ENVIRO JUSTICE EXPERT TO COVID-19 TASK FORCE

Advocates for immediate boost in funding for EPA's Office of Enviro Justice given impact of virus on frontline communities

Washington, D.C. – Congressman Joe Kennedy III today called for the appointment of an environmental justice expert to the Coronavirus Task Force and an immediate increase in funding for the EPA's Office of Environmental Justice. In a letter to President Trump, Kennedy highlighted the higher rates of infection in cities like Lawrence, Chelsea, and Revere and the established link between exposure to pollution and toxic infrastructure and vulnerability to COVID-19.

“Communities like Chelsea, Lawrence and Revere weren’t uniquely targeted by COVID-19, they were uniquely vulnerable due to generations of public policy choices. The toxic exposure these communities disproportionately face sharpened the virus's blow. And recovery that does not proactively address this inequity is an incomplete recovery. That’s why I’m demanding that the President include a voice for those communities at a table that desperately needs diversity and representation.”

Last month, Kennedy called on Speaker Nancy Pelosi to redirect funds to environmental justice communities that would otherwise have been used to bail out corporate oil and gas interests. Kennedy recently introduced the Environmental Justice for All Act with Congressman Raul Grijalva and Congressman Donald McEachin. He also introduced the Voices for Environmental Justice Act in February.  His full letter can be found below.

Dear President Trump,

Given the documented impact of COVID-19 on environmental justice communities, I write today to urge the appointment of an environmental justice expert to the Coronavirus Task Force, as well as increased funding and support for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Environmental Justice. These communities are experiencing alarmingly high rates of COVID-19 infection compared to the general population. In Massachusetts, the eleven communities hardest hit by the virus are all environmental justice communities. To combat the inequities exposed by the virus in these communities, our federal response must be tailored to their unique needs and must address the unjust policies that have made them vulnerable to the virus.

These communities are not just in Massachusetts, and they are certainly not just urban. Across the United States, they are minority, indigenous, and low-income communities that are disproportionately exposed to hazardous chemicals, toxic substances, and environmental harms. These conditions make environmental justice communities more susceptible to the spread of COVID-19 and demand a focused federal response. To fully combat the crisis in these communities, a strategic effort must be coordinated by the federal government, including but not limited to deploying an army of medical translators, providing safe places for essential workers and infected individuals to isolate, purchasing cleaning supplies to sanitize public transportation, expanding access to telehealth and online education, and providing free child care for essential workers.

Chelsea, Massachusetts is an example of the challenges frontline communities are now facing. This city is comprised of mostly low-income and minority individuals and families, and is experiencing negative health and environmental consequences at significantly higher rates than the general population. Chelsea’s families tend to live in higher density homes with limited room to socially distance, work jobs that are deemed essential yet provide inadequate, if any sick or paid leave, face limited options for transportation outside of public transit, and have insufficient access to healthcare, among countless other challenges. A high concentration of polluting industries has rendered Chelsea Creek too polluted to use for drinking, fishing, or swimming, and filled the city’s air with diesel exhaust at levels 20 percent higher than the EPA’s reference concentration. Not only does the city have some of the highest rates of chronic respiratory disease, asthma, stroke, and major cardiovascular disease in the Commonwealth, but it also has the highest COVID-19 per capita infection rate in Massachusetts. 

We must be focused on addressing the environmental consequences that decades of biased policy choices have rendered. A recent study from the Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health indicates that COVID-positive patients living in areas that experience higher rates of air pollution were more likely to die than COVID-positive patients living in less polluted areas. As a result, minority and low-income populations and environmental justice communities are now facing a more dangerous fight against this pandemic as nearly 80 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal plant. This is confirmed by your own Administration. In 2018, researchers at the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment released a study concluding that people of color are much more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air and that low-income communities were exposed to higher rates of harmful fine particulate matter.

Additionally, your Administration has spent years aggravating these challenges for environmental justice communities, rather than address them head on. Just to name a few that directly impact these communities, your administration has rolled back toxic air pollution standards, eliminated the Clean Power Plan, lowered fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, and rescinded rules on methane emissions.Perhaps most troublingly, your Administration is using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to relax environmental regulations even further. For example, the EPA announced an enforcement freeze on key clean air regulations, allowing corporations to release more pollutants into the air. Further, you support proposals to provide liability waivers to fossil fuel corporations that will leave environmental justice communities without options for redress.

Your Administration should be hyper focused on the challenges these communities face. Rather than relax enforcement of environmental regulations that directly affect the respiratory system during a pandemic, the EPA should ensure current environmental regulations are rigidly enforced. I urge your Administration to pause the implementation of rules like the fuel efficiency standards that merely allow more pollution. The EPA should increase funding for the Office of Environmental Justice and super charge its efforts to engage environmental justice communities in permitting processes that so often leave them on the sidelines.

Perhaps most importantly, your Administration must recognize the plight of environmental justice communities. Without acknowledging and understanding this problem, your Administration will continue to fail to address it, only serving to make these challenges worse. To begin to reverse the effects of the pandemic and decades of neglect on these communities, you must appoint an environmental justice expert to the Coronavirus Task Force. No current Task Force members have expertise in environmental policy or experience working with environmental justice communities. Without expert advice, the White House has no hope of addressing the comprehensive needs of these communities and stemming the spread of the virus. Additionally, the White House Guidelines for Opening Up America must specifically acknowledge and address the unique needs of environmental justice communities. Opening states without addressing the conditions that make certain communities more vulnerable to the spread of the virus will increase infection rates across the board and needlessly add to the suffering of these hard-hit communities.

The COVID-19 crisis is both a health and economic crisis, but it is also adds another layer on the challenges environmental justice communities already face. Historic prejudices have handicapped these communities’ ability to fight back. While COVID-19 as a disease is not inherently discriminatory, our response and our efforts to rebuild are. Black and brown communities are facing unprecedented challenges at rates not seen in more affluent, whiter communities. Environmental justice communities faced unjust negative health outcomes long before this pandemic and will continue to struggle if you do not act quickly. I urge you to ensure environmental justice communities have the resources they need to combat this pandemic and the policies they need to recover. 

I look forward to your response.