In a state with “some of the most profound racial and class disparities with respect to the unequal exposure to ecological hazards,” it is unfathomable that Massachusetts has waited so long to join 25 states around the nation to pass environmental justice legislation. Finally, during this legislative session, a long-awaited Environmental Justice Bill (S.426/H.2913) has proceeded toward passage with broad support and no discernable opposition.
But just as the legislature is finally poised to pass this critical legislation, the process has screeched to a halt. Suddenly, we are confronted with a diluted version of the Environmental Justice Bill that contains neither rights nor explicit protections for people of color—or any other protected class.
Sometime during floor debate for the Environmental Bond Bill, Senator Mike Barrett introduced alternative environmental justice language that removes all reference to protected classes—race, income, national origin, or English language proficiency—from the definitions of “environmental justice” and “environmental justice population.” Not only that, Senator Barrett’s amendment erased reference to the right of all people to “enjoy a clean and healthful environment,” a right enshrined in the Massachusetts constitution, but so often denied to historically marginalized communities.
Compare the original language
“‘Environmental justice,’ the right to be protected from environmental pollution and to live in and enjoy a clean and healthful environment regardless of race, income, national origin, or English language proficiency“
with the language proposed by Senator Barrett
“‘Environmental justice,’ the equal protection and meaningful involvement of all people with respect to: (i) the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies;”
This new version of the bill strips away any mention of race and protected and reframes it into all lives matter legislation. Senator Barrett’s proposal undermines the very intention of the bill, and it would be a major setback for decades of work led by environmental justice communities.
Senator Barrett explained his version of environmental justice on Twitter, pointing out the need to protect white communities in the Commonwealth. But this is entirely misleading. The Environmental Justice Bill is written to protect those communities, too, just like environmental justice laws and policies throughout the nation.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice to specifies the communities EPA must protect:
“the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”
Communities battling environmental injustice shaped this definition over decades. Somehow that is not good enough for Senator Barrett, who has made clear that he wants to rewrite Massachusetts’ environmental justice law to eliminate explicit rights for the people who need them. His version shifts the burden to communities themselves to prove their case to agencies. This is the uphill battle environmental justice communities have fought for decades—with losses to health, life, security, and financial well-being.
Yesterday, more than 35 environmental, environmental justice, and civil rights advocacy and community groups called on the House and Senate Committees on Ways and Means to pass the Environmental Justice Bill.
Environmental justice communities in Massachusetts have waited too long for real, enforceable, rights-based protections to their health and well-being for us to wait any longer. Massachusetts can and must do better.