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Ruiz Leads Bicameral Effort to Address COVID’s Impact on Communities Plagued by Environmental Injustice

May 12, 2020
Press Release

Washington, DC – As Congress considers additional funding to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, members of the House and Senate have introduced legislation seeking to address the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has on communities experiencing environmental injustices. Rep. Raul Ruiz, M.D. (D-CA) introduced H.R.6692, the Environmental Justice COVID-19 Act, alongside Rep. Donald McEachin (D-VA). The bill would provide $50 million for environmental justice grant programs to monitor pollution and investigate COVID-19’s impact in frontline communities. The Environmental Justice COVID-19 Act was included in the latest House coronavirus relief package, H.R. 6800 the HEROES Act.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) introduced the Senate companion (S. 3680) along with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE).

“As an emergency physician and public health expert, I know firsthand that poor air quality can lead to higher rates of asthma and pulmonary diseases and put a population at higher risk of death due to COVID-19,” said Rep. Ruiz, an emergency medicine physician. “That is why marginalized and underserved communities who experience environmental hazards like air pollution have been hit harder by the Coronavirus and why they need the essential resources that the Environmental Justice COVID-19 Act will help provide during this pandemic.”

“Communities of color and low-income communities face public health challenges at alarming rates, and these challenges—like high rates of asthma caused by poor air quality—make these communities especially vulnerable to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Sen. Duckworth. “I’m proud to join with colleagues in the House and Senate to introduce legislation that would provide funding to programs that investigate COVID-19’s impact on environmental justice communities.”

“The coronavirus is invisible but it has exposed so much of the reality we must now confront: even without COVID-19 plaguing us, communities of color, low income communities, and indigenous communities suffer disproportionate impacts of contaminated environments, including higher rates of cancer, birth defects, asthma, and more,” said Sen. Booker. “As we work to tackle this virus and plan for the future, we cannot afford to go back to what was normal before the pandemic. We must work to build a new normal, and this legislation is an important first step.”

“Communities seeing higher rates of coronavirus infection and death in this country are the very same ones facing disproportionate levels of air, land and water pollution. It’s not a coincidence. It’s a stark reminder that environmental quality and public health are critically connected, and that communities of color, low income communities, and indigenous communities have been underserved and overlooked for far too long,” said Sen. Carper, top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “It’s also why achieving environmental justice must be a key part of our national strategy to overcome this deadly pandemic. We can’t have a healthy economy without healthy people, and no one can be healthy without clean air to breathe, safe water to drink and an environment free of toxic chemicals and pollution. It’s that simple. These federal programs take community-centered approaches to address the underlying environmental factors at the root of public health problems.”

“The coronavirus is disproportionately devasting environmental justice communities, and instead of providing greater protection, the EPA has chosen to abdicate its responsibility to protect frontline communities,” said Congressman McEachin. “In the face of EPA inaction, I am proud to introduce the Environmental Justice COVID-19 Act alongside my colleague, Rep. Ruiz. The federal government cannot continue to turn a blind eye to these wrongs and Trump’s EPA must not be allowed to leave behind environmental justice communities in yet another chapter in our nation’s legacy of systemic equality.”

Background:

The Environmental Justice COVID-19 Act would provide $50 million for EPA’s Environmental Justice Small Grants Program, the Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving Cooperative Agreement, and the Community Action for a Renewed Environment Grant Program with the purpose of monitoring pollution in or near communities experiencing environmental injustices and investigating the disproportionate impacts of the COVID–19 pandemic on those communities.

The Environmental Justice Small Grant Program is a competitive grant that local community groups can apply for to mitigate local instances of environmental injustices. Environmental Justice Small Grants fund projects up to $30,000, depending on the availability of funds in a given year.

  • Previous project awards include water sampling; identifying contaminants in soil, food, and water; watershed restoration; monitoring water contamination, lead exposure, and indoor air quality.

The Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving (EJCPS) Cooperative Agreement Program provides funding to support community-based organizations in their efforts to collaborate and partner with local businesses, local governments, medical providers, academia, and other stakeholder groups as they develop and implement solutions that address environmental and/or public health issues for underserved communities. The term “underserved community” refers to a community with environmental justice concerns and/or vulnerable populations, including minority, low income, rural, tribal, and indigenous populations.

  • Previous project awards include identifying toxic substances and lead exposure related to safe housing, cracking down on illegal dumping, water sampling and monitoring, air and water monitoring project, and improving water quality.

The Community Action for a Renewed Environment (CARE) Grant Program provides support for communities to form collaborative partnerships; develop comprehensive understandings of risks from toxic and environmental pollutants; set priorities, identify, and carry out projects to reduce risks through collaborative action at the local level.

  • The CARE program is focused on all types of exposure – both indoor and outdoor air water, or land.

This Congress, Rep. Ruiz also introduced H.R. 3923, the Environmental Justice Act of 2019, which would require federal agencies to address environmental justice and require consideration of its cumulative impacts in certain permitting decisions. Multiple sections of this legislation were included in the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s comprehensive climate change discussion draft: the CLEAN Future Act.

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