Pennsylvania Lawmakers Must Make Environmental Justice a Top Priority

"We need strong legislation to protect communities overburdened by pollution," writes Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania Executive Director Molly Parzen.
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Pennsylvania communities deserve environmental justice. 

Imagine living all your life next to a power plant that sends smoke into the atmosphere each day. Imagine your local water system being filled with chemicals that go into your bloodstream every time you hydrate. Imagine your kids getting asthma at a young age because of the harmful particulates in the air they breathe. For too many Pennsylvania residents, these situations are all too real. 

This year, voters will consider whom to support in the State House, a critical opportunity to strengthen Pennsylvania’s slim pro-environment majority in Harrisburg. For decades, the legislature has been under the influence of large corporate polluters, doing their bidding and thus endangering the health of thousands of Pennsylvanians one community at a time. Now that the environmental movement has gained a foothold in Harrisburg, Pennsylvanians can set their sights on building support for a more robust environmental agenda. A top priority must be the pursuit of environmental justice policies.

READ: Time to Move on Bold, New Clean Energy Plan for Pennsylvania

Environmental justice is needed to protect the health and well-being of citizens who have suffered from living in close proximity to fossil fuel-burning and polluting infrastructure. Individuals who live near power plants, landfills, factories and highways face health risks that other residents do not. Higher risks of asthma, cancers and fertility issues from chemical exposure, and chronic cough issues are among the challenges that too many residents face. 

It is disproportionately low-income communities, Latino and African-American communities that bear the worst burden from these industry-caused illnesses. For decades, these issues and the inequality underlying them went unexplored, unexplained, and ignored. 

Finally, Pennsylvanians are calling for environmental justice in a statewide effort to push back on environmental racism. 

The truth is that decision makers who decide where to build factories, power plants, ​​incinerators, landfills, and sewage plants have either 1) not considered the impact on local populations or 2) deliberately placed such infrastructure near communities without political clout. As a result, burdened communities with little political influence suffer from worsening air quality and water conditions. 

Three bills in Harrisburg will do something about it. 

HB 652 would give standing to communities in close proximity to unsafe facilities. It would create a legal definition of “burdened communities” to insist upon consideration for affected neighborhoods and ensure local voices are represented in decision processes on utilities, factories, landfills and powerplants. Under the bill, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) would be allowed to deny permits to project applicants whose plans have a measurably corrosive health impact on surrounding communities.

READ: How Fossil Free Penn Is Advocating For Climate Justice  

HB 707 would protect one of the only state organizations in place to advocate for marginalized communities from environmental abuse: the Environmental Justice Advisory Board (EJAB). Composed of historically marginalized groups, environmentalists, academics, and industry experts, EJAB does essential work in scrutinizing and replacing policies that harm human health. The bill safeguards the EJAB from potential partisan dismantlement under any future anti-environment administration. 

HB 742 would give marginalized communities a seat at the table and petition the government to change harmful projects and policies. The bill directs the DEP Secretary to form Regional Environmental Justice Committees consisting of historically marginalized groups and environmental experts. Individuals from burdened communities would be able to petition these committees about adverse environmental effects of state policies. This crucial step would give voice to local residents to prevent environmental damage to local people.  

Pennsylvania is one of the few states in the nation that provides citizens a constitutional right to a clean environment. As Section 127 of Pennslylvania’s constitution reads: “The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.” For far too long, this right was not properly afforded to individuals and families in burdened communities. 

There are some who are still fighting for frackers, drillers, and oil companies that pursue profits at the expense of human health. We must do everything we can to defeat these forces and ensure our commonwealth lives up to its constitutional promise. 

We hope that readers will contact their legislators and encourage them to support HB 652, HB 707, and HB 742 to protect the health and wellbeing of all Pennsylvania residents, no matter their zip code, race, or socio-economic situation.

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Picture of Molly Parzen

Molly Parzen

Molly Parzen is Executive Director of Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, a statewide environmental advocacy group.

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