‘My eyes opened’: Duckworth’s environmental justice journey

By George Cahlink | 07/14/2020 07:08 AM EDT

Environmental justice is a new focus for Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a disabled veteran whose war record makes her a sought-after voice on national security and put her in contention as a running mate for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

Tammy Duckworth celebrating victory in her 2016 Senate race.

Tammy Duckworth celebrating victory in her 2016 Senate race. Brian Cassella/TNS/Newscom

When Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth ran for the Senate four years ago, she was shocked by statistics showing far higher levels of pollution in low-income communities on Chicago’s South Side than in the rest of the state.

The then-suburban House lawmaker learned that the life expectancy rate drops 13 years as one travels along eight stops on the Windy City’s L train, from wealthy and more middle-class areas into its more impoverished, mostly minority neighborhoods.

"I had my eyes opened," the first-term senator said in a recent interview with E&E News. "The statistics are just devastating. We have located our most polluting industries in Black and brown communities, so those same communities literally are dumped on over and over again."


Those disparities inspired Duckworth to launch the Senate’s first Environmental Justice Caucus a year ago with Senate Environment and Public Works ranking member Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) (E&E News PM, April 22, 2019).

Environmental justice is a relatively new focus for Duckworth, a disabled Army veteran whose well-known war record has made her a sought-after voice on national security issues and put her in contention as a running mate for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

Duckworth, an EPW member, has proposed several EJ amendments and bills, raised justice issues repeatedly with administration officials at hearings, and invited a young Illinois activist as her guest to the president’s State of the Union address to highlight the topic (E&E Daily, Feb. 5).

"Sen. Duckworth is working hard to bring attention to the many ways climate change disproportionately harms communities of color and to fight that injustice. I admire her leadership and fierce commitment to defending those most affected by climate change," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), long one of the chamber’s leading environmentalists and a member of the EJ caucus.

Environmental justice concerns were already more prominent in the current Congress (E&E Daily, Jan. 31). Racial unrest following the death of George Floyd at the hand of Minneapolis police means the issues are getting more attention than at any time in the movement’s more than 50-year history.

An understanding of Duckworth’s priorities and efforts, her personal story, and the history of the EJ movement in Chicago offers insight into a lawmaker who is positioning herself to lead in helping environmentally at-risk communities.

An activist tradition

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.). Photo credit: Francis Chung/E&E News
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) on Capitol Hill in January. | Francis Chung/E&E News

Environmental activism has a long history in Chicago, one Duckworth is trying to build on.

Hazel Johnson, a longtime South Side resident, is often referred to as the "mother of environmental justice" movement, and Duckworth called her a "hero" in launching the caucus.

After Johnson’s husband died of lung cancer in the late 1960s, she founded People for Community Recovery, a grassroots organization that has successfully pushed for more testing, monitoring and improvements of unsafe environmental conditions in the city’s low-income neighborhoods.

She famously dubbed the area around Altgeld Gardens, the public housing complex where her family lived, a "toxic doughnut" because it was surrounded by a factory, a landfill and a sewer plant.

Johnson’s work led to some of the first links of high rates of respiratory and pulmonary disease in those communities with exposure to toxic chemicals.

In the 1980s, Johnson mentored a young Barack Obama, who was then beginning his career as a community organizer, as they mobilized residents to force the city to remove asbestos from Altgeld Gardens.

Like Obama, Duckworth has a compelling personal story that helped launch her political career and has fanned speculation that she will be Biden’s vice presidential pick.

Duckworth, 52, was born in Thailand to a Chinese-Thai mother and an American father who was a World War II Marine veteran with ancestors who served in the American Revolution. She grew up across Southeast Asia as her father worked for the United Nations and private companies.

Duckworth graduated from high school in Hawaii, where the family settled after her father was laid off and could not afford to move any farther east.

Duckworth aspired to join the foreign service after graduating from the University of Hawaii and pursuing graduate work at George Washington University, where she also joined the Army ROTC.

But by the mid-1990s, she had moved on to Northern Illinois University to pursue a doctorate and transferred to an Illinois National Guard unit to increase her odds of being deployed overseas as one of the military’s few female combat helicopter pilots.

By November 2004, already having served a year in Iraq, Duckworth was a copilot aboard a Black Hawk helicopter returning from a routine mission when a grenade exploded beneath her cockpit. After seeing Duckworth’s legs torn off and her slip into unconsciousness, the other pilot on board assumed she was dead.

Duckworth, of course, survived but lost both of her legs and spent a year undergoing rehabilitation at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. She was outfitted with prosthetics that allow her to walk, although she more frequently is seen in a wheelchair on Capitol Hill.

During her recovery, lawmakers regularly were making visits to wounded troops, and in one meeting, she met and befriended Illinois’ senior senator, Dick Durbin (D). He encouraged her to run for office. Democrats eager to field veterans got behind her for an open-seat House run in 2006. She narrowly lost the race to Republican Peter Roskam.

Duckworth would quickly land a job as director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs and then join the Obama administration in 2009 as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs.

She left that post in 2011 to run for a House seat west of Chicago, where she defeated incumbent Rep. Joe Walsh (R) by 9 percentage points.

Two years later, Duckworth rolled to a double-digit reelection and almost immediately was seen as the party’s best option to take on Sen. Mark Kirk, a Republican, who was seen by some as a fluke winner in 2010 amid a GOP wave.

Duckworth would win the Senate seat by 14 points in 2016, in part by tying Kirk to Donald Trump, and would become the first Thai-American woman and disabled female veteran to serve in the chamber.

In 2018, she became the first woman in Senate history to give birth during her service, even sparking a rules change to allow senators to bring their babies to the floor.

‘Safe pick’

Miles Coleman, an analyst with Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia, ranks her No. 3 on a list of 10 potential vice president picks for Biden, citing her as a "safe pick" with a strong, personal story and a national security background.

He also said it helps that Illinois has a Democratic governor who would be able to replace Duckworth with another Democrat if she were part of the winning ticket. If she stays in the Senate, he said, she’d be a strong favorite in 2022.

Coleman said her environmental record appeals to swing voters. Moreover, her specific focus on justice issues could help Biden, who’s facing calls to make racial reforms central to his candidacy.

Duckworth reportedly is being vetted by Biden’s team, which has said it expects to select a female running mate in early August.

She has been increasingly aggressive in attacking Trump, nicknaming him "Cadet Bone Spurs" over his medical excuse for failing to serve in Vietnam. She also has led Democratic efforts to rename military bases bearing the names of Confederate leaders.

Conservatives have noticed. Fox News host Tucker Carlson recently called her a "moron" and "coward" after raising concerns about George Washington owning slaves.

Duckworth fired back, "Does @TuckerCarlson want to walk a mile in my legs and then tell me whether or not I love America?" she tweeted. Democrats also rallied behind her.

Coleman said Biden might welcome Duckworth on the ticket because of her willingness to go after Trump and keep himself above the fray.

"She’d be a good attack dog," he adds.

Green record

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.). Photo credit: Francis Chung/E&E News
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) during a hearing of the Senate Democrats’ special climate panel. | Francis Chung/E&E News

Duckworth has a 90% lifetime voting score from the League of Conservation Voters, one that would be even higher save for votes she missed in the House and Senate when she was on maternity leave. The senator has two young daughters.

LCV has been her third-largest campaign donor over the past five years, giving her $176,310, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

After focusing on mainly military and veterans’ issues in the House, Duckworth expanded her environmental work in the Senate, landing a seat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, where she has joined colleagues in questioning the Trump administration’s environmental rule rollbacks.

The senator has declined to fully embrace the progressive Green New Deal, warning that moving "too far to the left" could cost Democrats votes in the Midwest.

Her view mirrors those of party leaders including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who at one point called the plan the "green new dream" and suggested it would not be able to win broad congressional support.

Duckworth’s other notable break with greens has been her support for ethanol, an important source of income for southern Illinois farmers who sell their crops to biofuel refiners.

In a nod to environmentalists, however, she often frames her support for ethanol as pushing back against "Big Oil" companies that oppose alternative fuels.

Duckworth does not have a law degree, but her aggressive questioning of Trump officials can bring to mind a prosecutor trying to trip up a defense witness. It was on display at an EPW hearing in May with EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler.

She began by listing cities around the world that had seen pollution rates fall amid the pandemic, but noted that Chicago had not.

Duckworth said she was worried that EPA has been relaxing enforcement amid the outbreak and feared its impacts on the city’s Black and brown communities, which often are located closer to factories and other sources of pollution (E&E Daily, May 21).

"Can you answer, yes or no: Is EPA requiring every regulated company that claims it is unable to comply with its monitoring, reporting or other compliance obligations due to COVID-19 to disclose that information to EPA?" she asked Wheeler.

Wheeler initially disputed the question, saying there had been no change in enforcement. But Duckworth pressed him on whether companies that cannot comply with emissions standards, during the pandemic, were disclosing the information to Congress and the public.

The EPA chief ended up conceding that during the pandemic, the agency was not mandating reporting. "We haven’t put a deadline on when they have to comply because a lot of these facilities don’t have any employees at their facilities, and we don’t want to have to require people to come in to fill out a standard report," he said.


Earlier this spring, Duckworth and the EJ caucus linked EPA environmental justice grants with the pandemic by arguing that COVID-19 was hitting minority communities, who already suffered from higher rates of respiratory illness due to elevated pollution, especially hard.

Ultimately, Congress provided about $50 million for EPA grants in its Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act pandemic bill, a victory for EJ supporters who have seen the program curtailed under Trump. They also say it raised public awareness about inequities resulting from the pandemic.

"I think of it as a breakthrough, and it sets the foundation for us getting more in the future," said Duckworth.

Carper said the novel coronavirus pandemic has also refocused public and congressional attention on environmental justice.

"One of the things we’ve hit right square between the eyes is that this disease is especially deadly for elderly people, especially with underlying medical conditions," he told E&E News.

"If you happen to be African American, wherever you live across the country, there is a much greater likelihood that you’ll become sick with this disease and far greater chances that you will go to the hospital, compared to the rest of the populations; you may die. And we can’t ignore this."

Duckworth said it’s no surprise that it took almost 30 years after EPA first launched an Office of Environmental Justice for the Senate caucus to be formed. For many of those years, there were few people of color in the Senate, something that has now begun to change.

"Anytime you have more diverse representation in either the House or the Senate, you’re going to see many more decisions come to the forefront. So of course, having more minority senators in the Senate means that the issues that affect minority communities are going to be brought forward," said Duckworth.

Celeste Flores, the environmental activist with Faith in Place and Clean Power Lake County whom Duckworth hosted at the State of the Union, agreed that having people of color in Congress is crucial to drawing attention to justice issues.

"I think the importance of senators like Duckworth and Cory Booker to be able to speak their truths about environment justice and make it a priority for their community is something that’s so needed, and we don’t have enough people of color running," said Flores.

She credits Duckworth with pressing EPA to monitor ethylene oxide emissions from a coal plant in Waukegan, Ill., a majority Hispanic, working-class community just north of Chicago, after hosting a roundtable with local leaders about their concerns over the carcinogen (E&E Daily, July 9).

‘Not enough’

The pandemic and nationwide racial strife may have drawn more attention to the EJ Caucus, but the group has been active since it was launched on Earth Day 2019.

While the caucus does not have regular meetings, its members have been introducing EJ-themed legislation, including the "Low Income Solar Energy Act," S. 3680.

Along with other Democrats, the group pushed congressional appropriators to reverse some of the White House’s proposed EPA funding cuts and led the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis forum exploring links between climate change and EJ.

Many of the caucus members have signed on to Booker’s "Environmental Justice Act," S. 2236, which reflects a long-term EJ vision. He first introduced the measure in 2013.

The legislation would require federal agencies to address inequities of pollution and climate damage through their permitting decisions. It would also overturn Supreme Court precedent to allow individuals, rather than government agencies, to bring environmental lawsuits under the Civil Rights Act.

Duckworth is writing a report that will make specific EJ policy and legislative recommendations for the next Congress and administration.

She also recently landed a slot on the Democrats’ 2020 platform committee, giving her another forum for promoting EJ ideas.

The Senate caucus will also coordinate with the House United for Climate and Environmental Justice Task Force, which consists of members long active on the issue from the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

Already, the Senate caucus has had some success in seeing EJ priorities attached to broader bills that attract bipartisan support.

For example, the Senate’s proposed Water Resources and Development bill contains $18 billion for water projects in rural and low-income communities and legislation, S. 3633, requiring EPA to use an environmental justice screening and mapping tool.

Duckworth and her colleagues have also been active in pushing for action against per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemical contamination at military bases and surrounding communities. Duckworth is a member of the Armed Services Committee.

The scope of the caucus’s ambitions was underscored in a seven-page proposal it sent Senate leaders this spring outlining more than $100 billion in new EJ spending it wants included in pandemic legislation.

The requests ranged from $20 billion for EPA’s Superfund and Brownfields programs to $5 billion for expanding environmental job opportunities for people of color.

While most of those proposals are far from becoming law, green advocates praise Duckworth and the caucus for pressing them.

Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of environmental justice, climate and community revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation, who spent more than two decades at EPA working on environmental justice issues, sees the caucus as overdue and has been in regular contact with Senate staff on its agenda.

He credits Duckworth and the caucus with getting the EJ grant dollars and said he’s been especially pleased to see its leaders working directly with often-ignored frontline communities.

Ali added, though, "I don’t want folks to think that I’m satisfied. That’s not enough, but we’re moving in the right direction."

Ali, a regular witness on Capitol Hill, said there remains much educating to be done on EJ issues with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Duckworth agreed. "I am pleased that we were able to launch this. I’m pleased that we’re seeing more interest in environmental justice. But boy, do we have a long way to go and more things we need to do."

Reporter Geof Koss contributed.