We’re Fighting for Environmental Justice in a Red State. We Need Congress to Do Its Part

The climate crisis is here, and it is damaging vulnerable communities and communities of color. As the National Black Caucus of State Legislators has pointed out, these are the same communities that for decades have been “disproportionately and systematically” poisoned by fossil fuels and other toxic pollution. These long-standing injustices cry out for urgent government leadership. It’s time for Democrats in Congress to pass transformational investments in environmental justice.

We have spent combined decades fighting for equity and justice for all. As two current and former South Carolina state representatives — one a member of President Joe Biden’s White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, the other the immediate past president of the NBCSL — we’ve seen firsthand how public investments succeed in reaching the communities they’re intended to help. On the other hand, we have also seen them fail.

We need action at all levels of government. And we’re not waiting. This year, we have worked together to advance legislation in South Carolina to create a state oversight committee that will ensure these critical federal investments reach EJ communities.

First, though, congressional lawmakers must act. Their action is particularly important for communities in states with Republican leadership. And we see encouraging progress. Earlier this year, Biden announced his Justice40 Initiative, aimed to target at least “40 percent of the benefits of climate and clean infrastructure investments to disadvantaged communities.” Last month, the Biden administration announced interim guidance to federal agencies to help deliver on this commitment.

Congress has a wide range of EJ investments ready to be deployed from Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, nearly all of which were directly informed by EJ leaders, like those involved in the Equitable & Just National Climate Platform. These include: new affordable housing construction; home weatherization; state and local clean energy block grants; Superfund cleanup and Brownfields redevelopment; investments in public transit; clean water infrastructure that will allow for the removal of century-old lead pipes; broadband access; and other issues brought to light by the pandemic. Federal lawmakers must move with urgency and conviction in passing the bill through the budget reconciliation process so that it cannot be filibustered.

Our communities must also be ready to receive these investments. That will take intentional coordination between different levels of government, alongside community voices, to ensure environmental justice and equitable economic opportunity are truly being realized. The Justice40 Oversight Committee we have proposed and are still working hard to pass in South Carolina creates a mechanism to locate and help organize disadvantaged communities to ensure the full benefit of these federal credits, grants, and loans. It would hold state and federal officials accountable for results and bring much-needed transparency to the process. We have also shared this work with colleagues in other states. The Delaware legislature has already passed a similar bill. And we strongly believe more measures will follow, as more states make new progress passing environmental justice legislation.

We know that this level of coordination and accountability is essential. During the Obama administration, we saw Republican state lawmakers and leaders in South Carolina turn away critical federal investments, such as funds from the Affordable Care Act that could have helped keep hospitals open, especially in our rural communities. We worry that the same thing will happen again.

Democrats in Congress must meet Biden’s commitments and invest in EJ communities, all while ensuring that those on the front lines have a direct say in the solutions. Then we will need leaders at all levels to fight to ensure these investments truly reach those that they are intended to benefit. Let’s build a better future together — for all of us.


Former State Rep. Harold Mitchell is the founder and executive director of the Regenesis Project, a former South Carolina state representative, a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and the Evergreen Action advisory board, and a founding signatory to the Equitable & Just National Climate Platform.

State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter is the longest-serving member of the South Carolina House of Representatives, and immediate past president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.

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