WE ACT for Environmental Justice and the Sabin Center Release Model Environmental Justice Bills
In an effort to advance environmental justice solutions across the United States, the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, an affiliate of the Columbia Climate School, has partnered with WE ACT for Environmental Justice to launch a suite of model state environmental justice bills for legislators and advocates to introduce and adopt in their state’s 2024 legislative sessions.
Dismantling Injustice: A M.O.D.E.L. (Model for Optimizing and Designing Environmental Legislation) For Empowering Communities was created to arm interested legislators with tools to accelerate proposed policy changes. It contains model legislative language, fact sheets, memos, and regulatory briefing information covering five topic areas: (1) cumulative impact reports, (2) indirect source permits, (3) permit renewals, (4) environmental advisory boards, and (5) zoning.
The model bills include increased regulatory oversight by state environmental agencies to address environmental injustice, new data metrics, and increased public engagement—critical components in understanding and mitigating the full extent of cumulative impacts. WE ACT chose to partner with the Sabin Center in the hopes of leveraging its work on New Jersey and New York’s cumulative impacts legislation to positively impact other communities. This partnership with WE ACT has also furthered the Sabin Center’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Anti-Racism initiative.
The cumulative impacts framework is critical to promoting environmental justice in disadvantaged communities, as the combined exposures to pollutants, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “often increases their vulnerability to new or ongoing environmental hazards, which can cause, perpetuate, or exacerbate disproportionate environmental and public health harms and risks.” As a result, community members suffer from higher adverse health effects, including asthma, cancer, elevated blood lead levels, respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and development disorders.
Environmental justice topics—and specifically cumulative impacts—have been the subject of renewed interest under the Biden Administration, which issued an Executive Order in 2021 memorializing the goal that 40 percent of the overall benefits of certain federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.
The release of these model laws is particularly timely in light of recently weakened or repealed federal environmental protections, which has led to uncertainty regarding the evaluation, guidance, and regulatory enforcement associated with the assessment of cumulative impacts.
While some states, such as New York, New Jersey, and Maryland, have already enacted cumulative impacts and environmental justice laws, additional efforts at the state level are needed to continue addressing cumulative impacts.
Andrea Nishi is the Climate Justice Fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.