House Dems hold out hope for environmental justice vote

By Emma Dumain | 12/14/2022 06:17 AM EST

Democrats are grappling with a limited calendar and internal divisions.

Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.).

Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.) is co-sponsoring environmental justice legislation. Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

Despite some very steep odds, colleagues of the late-Rep. Don McEachin are not yet giving up on securing a vote in the waning days of the 117th Congress on historic environmental justice legislation intended to honor the memory of the Virginia Democrat who helped write it.

“This is our time to do it,” said Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.) yesterday, confirming there is “still interest and a possibility” of holding the vote on the bill by the year’s end.

“[Democrats are] about to go into the minority in the next two years,” she added. “If we’re gonna get it done, this is our best shot.”


Whether proponents of H.R. 2021, the “Environmental Justice for All Act,” succeed will depend on practical considerations, like whether there’s time to put the bill on the floor during a packed legislative season with just days left in the session.

But perhaps most crucially, movement will hinge on whether House Democrats can resolve differences among themselves on some of the bill’s more controversial elements.

“There are substantial — not concerns about the bill, but discussions about it,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday, acknowledging a heightened interest in reaching consensus after McEachin’s sudden death from colorectal cancer complications. “If there’s agreement, we certainly would like to move it.”

While Democrats are largely united that promoting environmental justice is a worthy cause, the “Environmental Justice for All Act” is an aggressive approach to mitigating the effects of pollution and related hazards on the most vulnerable populations.

The bill was written by McEachin, a Democrat from Virginia, and House Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) over the course of several years, with feedback from environmental justice advocates and inspiration from cross-country listening tours and fact-finding missions.

Rep. Don McEachin (D-Va.) introduced a resolution yesterday, along with numerous co-sponsors, to commemorate Earth Day.
Rep. Don McEachin (D-Va.) on Capitol Hill. McEachin died last month. | Francis Chung/E&E News

It would make major changes to the nation’s bedrock environmental laws and allow more intensive community input into the siting of fossil fuel projects. It also would vastly expand the power of polluted communities to reject projects that can spike local rates of cancer and respiratory disease and cause long-term pollution.

A significant component of the bill deals with “cumulative impacts,” which would require permitting decisions under the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act to account for the cumulative effects of harmful emissions on communities.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has legislative jurisdiction over those laws, and this is the portion of the “Environmental Justice for All Act” that has emerged as the thorniest, according to Grijalva.

“We’ve been trying hard to work to accommodate the need to vote on [the] ‘Environmental Justice for All’ bill and rename it after Mr. McEachin as a very important acknowledgement of his work and the commitment that he had to frontline communities,” Grijalva told E&E News recently. “But that’s been problematic because of issues with the cumulative impact language.”

Grijalva has been lobbying House Democratic leaders to move the “Environmental Justice for All Act” since before McEachin’s death. Democrats on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis added to the chorus in the wake of his passing (E&E Daily, Dec. 1).

Barragán, a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said Tuesday she wasn’t surprised to hear that not everyone on the committee appreciated the need to account for cumulative impacts.

“There are different members with different points of view,” she said. “Those of us who come from the frontline communities tend to be the ones who are most vocal about it, but there are others who maybe don’t feel that way.”

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, told E&E News on Tuesday he didn’t know where he or his members stood on the issue.

“I don’t know; I can’t tell you,” he said. “I really can’t — I don’t know the answer.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats said Pallone “honors” McEachin, a member of the committee, “and the environmental justice work that he devoted his life to. The EJ for All Act deserves full consideration, and the Chairman is working with his colleagues to continue its progress this Congress.”

Reporter Nick Sobczyk contributed.