Prioritizing Environmental Justice in the Infrastructure & Recovery Package: A Q&A with Congressional Environmental Justice Leaders

Aug 20, 2021

Brittany King, LCV Congressional Champions Associate

Infrastructure is quite literally the backbone of our society — it determines how we get around, the water we drink, what resources we have access to, our quality of life, and if we can make it through when disaster strikes. It is more than just roads and bridges and public transit, though those are all important, it is about building resilient communities and preparing for our future. What we build today will shape the next 20 to 50 years. 

We see everyday the impacts of decisions made decades ago on our communities, our environment, and our climate. While some neighborhoods are sheltered in abundant trees and connected with reliable transportation, the negative consequences of urban planning are consistently felt first and worst in communities of color and low-income communities. As Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said, “There is racism physically built into some of our highways.” From the displacement of communities of color to build our national highway system and the intentional placement of polluting factories in these communities to redlining and underinvestment, policymakers have consistently failed to prioritize the physical, mental, and economic well-being of Black, Indigenous and people of color in infrastructure planning. The effects of these racist policies are far-reaching: chronic health problems, financial devastation, and the trauma of losing one’s community. 

We have a chance to make a big investment in our future right now. To create infrastructure that will reduce pollution and inequities, mitigate and adapt to our rapidly changing climate, and repair the harms of past and present policies.

On its own, the bipartisan infrastructure bill the Senate passed last week is not enough to meet this moment — for our climate or our communities. Without the simultaneous passage of the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package, the bipartisan infrastructure bill is just another half-measure when it comes to tackling the climate crisis. As the most recent IPCC report makes clear, we’ve run out of time for half-measures. This is why it is critical that as the budget resolution becomes a fully fleshed out bill it arrives at President Biden’s desk with the full $3.5 trillion and at the same time as the bipartisan bill.

As our country makes the largest investment in infrastructure we’ve seen in decades,   we must ensure that Congress centers environmental justice or we will only recreate the disparities that exist in our society today. Eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, weatherizing homes, replacing lead pipes, providing clean transportation for kids, and incentivizing our transition to a clean energy economy are just a few of the policies that if robustly funded and implemented with justice could help both our communities and planet.   

In order to fully meet the moment, the infrastructure and budget reconciliation bills that end up on President Biden’s desk need to center environmental justice, climate action, and jobs. Given the importance of this task, LCV asked some environmental justice champions in the House and Senate, representing communities from Oregon to Florida, to answer some questions on infrastructure, environmental justice, and the climate crisis:  

1). What is the connection between infrastructure and environmental justice?

“Environmental injustice costs lives, and going big on clean infrastructure is how we level the playing field. ” – Rep. Adriano Espaillat 

“Infrastructure is the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the health and wellbeing of our communities.” – Sen. Ed Markey

“Historically, we’ve failed on this—choking poor communities and communities of color with toxic pollution and creating ‘heat islands’ that amplify the worst heat impacts of climate chaos.” – Sen. Jeff Merkley 

Decades of discrimination & underinvestment have put environmental justice communities in harm’s way when it comes to pollution & extreme weather.” – Chair Kathy Castor

“Low-income and minority communities have had to bear the economic & health burdens linked to climate change.” – Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez 

“We have a historic opportunity to mitigate long-standing environmental inequities through bold investment while creating millions of new jobs.” – Rep. Donald McEachin

2). How would investments in environmental justice benefit your district or state? 

“These investments would not only help us protect this beautiful place we call home, but it would improve public health & create good-paying jobs as we transition into a greener economy. ” – Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez

“Addressing systemic environmental racism can improve the lives of every marginalized community. ” – Chair Raul Grijalva

“By investing in air quality monitoring, clean transit, and renewable energy like wind and solar, we can clean the air in Massachusetts.” – Sen. Ed Markey

Investing in environmental justice will save lives across Florida, where we could face 100+ days with a heat index over 100°F every year by 2050, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.” – Chair Kathy Castor

“These investments can help mitigate threats of legacy pollution & impacts of climate change for frontline & fenceline communities.” – Rep. Donald McEachin

If we do it right, the infrastructure package will ensure every Oregonian has access to clean air and water.” – Sen. Jeff Merkley 

3). How does the climate crisis intersect with infrastructure and environmental justice?

Extracting and burning fossil fuels poisons people and drives climate chaos. ” – Sen. Jeff Merkley 

“Our disadvantaged communities bear the brunt of the climate crisis, and inadequate infrastructure only makes the effects worse. ” – Rep. Adriano Espaillat 

“Most infrastructure wasn’t built to withstand the extreme climate we see today” – Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez 

“Communities that have been shut out of investments because of racism and inequitable policies are facing the worst impacts of climate change.” – Sen. Ed Markey

From air quality to sea level rise, climate change often hits economically oppressed communities hardest.” – Chair Raul Grijalva

Solving the climate crisis and rebuilding America’s infrastructure must be centered in environmental justice, righting the wrongs of the past and undoing historical injustices.” – Chair Kathy Castor

Increased pollution, unsafe drinking water, and rising temperatures impact environmental justice communities at a disproportionately high rate.” – Rep. Jan Schakowsky

4). What are some infrastructure investments that would increase environmental justice or rectify injustices?

There are so many things we must do to ensure environmental justice – and it starts by centering EJ at the heart of what we do.” – Chair Kathy Castor

“We have to make bold investments to rectify injustices.” – Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez 

“This is our chance to invest in climate-resilient housing, increase access to greener public transportation, and so much more. ” – Rep. Adriano Espaillat 

“The Civilian Climate Corps will create thousands of high-quality climate action jobs in environmental justice communities.” – Sen. Ed Markey

Ensuring more equitable access to parks and recreational opportunities that benefit underserved urban communities is environmental justice, and it’s good for the whole country.” – Chair Raul Grijalva

“To support environmental justice communities, we must prioritize investments that increase access to clean energy, accelerate the deployment of zero-emissions transportation, and support programs that bolster workforce development and pollution reduction.” – Rep. Donald McEachin

Childhood lead poisoning disproportionately affects low-income families & communities of color. We should remediate lead-based paint hazards in housing—the leading cause of this poisoning.” – Sen. Cory Booker

We must invest in removing ALL of our nation’s lead service lines. Experience has taught us that without their removal, the harm will fall disproportionately on environmental justice communities.” – Rep. Jan Schakowsky

It is also so important that we’re listening to voices from EJ communities when making decisions about where and how to invest.” – Sen. Jeff Merkley

5). What pieces of legislation or initiatives need to be in the final infrastructure package?

“There’s no time to waste – our path forward needs to be .” – Rep. Adriano Espaillat 

The Environmental Justice For All Act gives political power back to the people, moves us away from systemic environmental racism, and advances environmental justice, health equity, and climate justice for all.” – Chair Raul Grijalva

“We need to prioritize resiliency across all sectors from improving the electric grid to expanding EV chargers. ” – Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez 

Climate must be included when the infrastructure ship leaves the dock, and our climate action must be rooted in environmental justice. ” – Sen. Jeff Merkley 

We must ensure the final infrastructure package includes robust investment to replace lead pipes and remediate lead paint, clean up toxic waste sites, and protect communities impacted by legacy pollution.” – Rep. Donald McEachin

My Environmental Justice Legacy Pollution Cleanup bill invests $200 billion to clean up legacy pollution & should be included.” – Sen. Cory Booker

With President Biden’s Build Back Better Agenda, Congress has a historic opportunity to rebuild our infrastructure and secure environmental justice. ” – Chair Kathy Castor

“My Transit to Trails bill – which passed the House earlier this year – would help ensure outdoor access for all & should be included.” – Rep. Jimmy Gomez