The Urgency of Environmental Justice Persists During COVID-19
By Tyneshia Griffin (she/her), Environmental Policy Research Analyst
For people of color and working-class people, their zipcode not only reflects where they work or go to school, but it also reflects their ability to breathe clean air, have access to healthcare, and economic opportunities — all of which may have a direct impact on their overall health. During the COVID-19 pandemic, advancing environmental justice must be a priority because people of color and working-class people in environmental justice communities are known to be more vulnerable to virus infection and mortality.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, activists, academics, doctors, and policymakers, have amplified that people of color and the working-class have higher rates of underlying health conditions, a known risk factor for the virus. Prior to this issue being heavily covered by the press, Congressman Donald McEachin (VA), and U.S. Natural Resource Committee Chair, Raúl M. Grijalva (AZ), sent a letter to congressional leadership requesting “robust assistance for environmental justice communities” in the next stimulus package. The reason for these demands was made explicit: environmental justice communities, whose members are largely people of color and low-income, are more likely to be exposed to pollution that results in underlying health conditions, such as cancer and asthma, and are more likely to lack healthcare.
A recent Harvard study supports the urgency of these demands — after analyzing pollution and COVID-19 data from over 3,000 U.S. counties, researchers found that long-term exposure to airborne pollution correlates with increased mortality rates from the COVID-19 virus.
Contrary to these findings, on March 13th, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a COVID-19 policy which allows for regulated facilities to seek enforcement discretion for noncompliance with crucial environmental and public health laws. Though this policy aims to provide guidance for regulated facilities during COVID-19, increases in noncompliance could have negative implications on environmental justice communities and public health at large.
Among foregoing regulatory enforcement, the agency has failed to update the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Particulate Matter, a vital air protection policy in the midst of this pandemic. The agency proposes leaving the standard unchanged, despite strong evidence that standards need to be stricter to reduce associated health risks.
Unfortunately, African-Americans and those who are eligible for Medicaid have been found to have a higher risk of death associated with particulate matter (P.M. 2.5), which are fine inhalable particles that can come from various sources of toxic air pollution. The aforementioned policy demands and health data in the context of these unprecedented rollbacks in environmental standards underscore how “where” working-class people of color live and work may connect to their health outcomes during and after this health crisis. The urgency of environmental justice, the necessity to improve the everyday environments in these communities, could not be more evident than now.
We thank the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ) for declaring an expectation of full compliance from regulated facilities in lieu of the EPA’s recent decrease in federal enforcement of environmental and public health laws. We also appreciate Virginia's Attorney General, Mark Herring, for calling on the EPA to rescind this unjust policy and for committing to fully enforce state environmental laws with other AG’s across the nation.
However, we recommend more expansive and deliberate measures be taken to prevent racial health disparities in COVID-19 related infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. Greater underlying health conditions in environmental justice communities are predicted to result in increased disease burden without concerted action centered in racial equity.
1. Where possible, the Governor and the Virginia Department of Health should mandate the collection and forwarding of racial and ethnic demographic data to the state health department for those getting tested, being hospitalized, and dying from COVID-19, while continuing to encourage private healthcare providers and labs to follow such guidance.
2. The state’s COVID-19 leadership and policy-makers must ensure policy measures designed to help working-class Virginians span the duration of the economic conditions related to COVID-19, including eviction halts, rent deferral, bans on utility disconnections, expansion of worker and healthcare benefits, and other efforts that would help finance sizeable amounts of families household spending.
3. We urge VDEQ to take particular consideration of the increased vulnerability of environmental justice communities during the COVID-19 outbreak when they are reviewing non-compliance issues on a case-by-case basis and considering options for public engagement.We ask that VDEQ uphold penalty enforcement, even if delayed, for serious noncompliance issues that can negatively affect public health.
4. After completion of the VDEQ Environmental Justice Study, we ask VDEQ to consider strategies for reducing pollution and enforcing compliance in vulnerable communities, not only on a regular basis, but particularly during widespread public emergencies such as the present, which may parallel the challenges of future climate emergencies.
5. The state’s COVID-19 Health Equity Workgroup should make recommendations for identifying and protecting environmental justice communities who may be at a higher risk for COVID-19 related mortality.
6. The state’s COVID-19 communication and outreach strategy for vulnerable populations should outline free or low-cost COVID-19 testing, treatment, and related financial aid for families in need. In addition to internet-based media campaigns and town halls, information should also be accessible to the elderly and working-class via phone calls, postcard mailers, posters, etc.
To read all our COVID-19 Crisis Policy Demands, please visit https://www.newvirginiamajority.org/covid19_policy_demands
To read our Ten Year Vision for Democracy, Justice, and Progress, please visit https://www.newvirginiamajority.org/tenyearvision
Raise the Minimum Wage: The Time is Now
By Dominique Martin (he/him)
Policy Research Analyst
Our economy should work for all of us, not just for big corporations or the wealthy few. This means that all Virginians deserve to live with dignity, have financial security in their day to day lives, and be able to plan for the future. During the 2020 legislative session, the General Assembly took a significant step forward by passing legislation that would raise the state’s minimum wage -- which would provide real relief for nearly 800,000 Virginia workers by 2023.
Virginia’s 2019 elections and the 2020 General Assembly session were both historic events. Through the ballot box, Virginians signaled a desire for progress and for legislators that would center their needs. The 2020 General Assembly passed several historic bills, including HB395, which would raise Virginia’s minimum wage to $12 by 2023 and put us on a path towards a $15 minimum wage. This legislation is now on Governor Northam’s desk, and he has until April 11th to take action before state lawmakers return to Richmond on April 22nd for the reconvened session.
A raise to the state’s minimum wage is long overdue. Virginia’s minimum wage has not increased since 2009, and compared to the typical cost of living in the state, Virginia’s minimum wage is the lowest in the country. Virginia’s low minimum wage has forced many families to live paycheck to paycheck, putting them at serious financial risk if for any reason a paycheck is missed. Workers often have to make difficult choices such as choosing to go to work instead of seeing a doctor if they or their family members are sick. HB395 would raise wages and increase financial flexibility for Virginia families.
The need for a higher minimum wage is more apparent now with the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. COVID-19 has upended our normal routines and required unprecedented actions by elected leaders to slow the spread of the virus. Our public health and our economy have been severely impacted by its spread. Families are desperately calling for support from elected officials in the wake of job losses, furloughs, and reductions in hours caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
There have been a record number of unemployment applications totaling over 6.6 million nationwide, as of April 2nd. At 158,774, there have been more unemployment claims in Virginia since the week of March 7th, than all of last year. Virginia is also expected to lose at least a billion dollars in tax revenue both in 2020 and 2021 because of the overall lack of economic activity due to the virus’s spread and containment policies. Because of this, some legislative victories from the 2020 legislative session may be in jeopardy, such as the minimum wage increase.
COVID-19 has already disrupted the economic health of Virginia families, and public policies, such as an increased minimum wage, are vital tools in strengthening economic opportunities and helping families thrive. Low-wage earners, who are more likely to be women and people of color, may be less prepared to deal with a crisis, such as COVID-19, due to a lack of savings or disposable income.
Yet, some low-wage workers, such as grocery store clerks, are considered essential workers during this crisis. This moment has shown that their work, and the work of all low-wage workers, is critical to maintaining the livelihoods and health of families across Virginia, and their contribution to the economy and their local communities should be valued and compensated.
Governor Northam has taken proactive steps to address some of the issues most pertinent to low-income households during this crisis. He has halted eviction proceedings and utility service disconnections, expanded access to unemployment insurance, and used his executive power to enact measures aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.
Now, he must keep an eye towards the future and sign HB395 without delay, so we can continue to make progress on creating an economy that works for all of us.
To read our Ten Year Vision for Democracy, Justice, and Progress, please visit
By Tyneshia Griffin (she/her)
Environmental Policy Research Analyst
Everyone should have access to clean, affordable, and efficient sources of energy. However, across the nation and in Virginia, Black, Latinx, and low-income families pay a higher percent of their income on electric bills than average median income households in the same cities. This legislative session, the General Assembly has the opportunity to pass the Fair Energy Bills Act (FEBA), bipartisan bill carried by Delegate Jay Jones and co-patron, Del. Lee Ware, which will help address the unfair energy burden faced by Black, Latinx, and low-income households in Virginia. This issue was just illuminated last fall in the Governor’s Executive Clean Energy Plan.
Energy burden, a key measure of energy affordability, refers to the percentage of a gross household income spent on electric utility costs;and in Virginia, the average monthly residential bill is the 7th highest in the United States. Low-income, Black, and Latinx households have been found to have the highest energy burden across 48 of the largest U.S. cities.
Nationally, low-income households (7.2 percent), African-American households (5.4 percent), Latino households (4.1 percent), and low-income renters (4.0 percent) have the highest energy burden. In 2013, African-American households in Richmond and Virginia Beach paid eight percent and ten percent of their household income towards energy cost, respectively. Latinx households in both Richmond and Virginia Beach paid about six percent of their household income towards energy cost. Meanwhile, median income households in Richmond only paid around three percent of their households income towards the same expenses and median income households in Virginia Beach paid closer to four percent.
The implications of high energy burden include unhealthy and uncomfortable living conditions as well as increased stress and cases of respiratory disease. These unfortunate circumstances can result from families voluntarily reducing their energy consumption by not sufficiently heating, cooling, and lighting their homes and avoiding the use of certain household appliances. Additional economic trade-offs can include refraining from purchasing foods and paying for medical care.
State policy that permits unaffordable rate design practices including fixed utility charges, such as in Virginia, is one of the known drivers of higher energy burden. As the average Dominion residential electric bill has increased by roughly 30% or $300 every year since 2006 due to drastic changes to electric utility law, households have been overcharged by Dominion Energy beyond authorized profit levels. For context, since electric base rates were frozen by electric utility law passed in 2015, Dominion Energy has overcharged customers by over $1.3 billion.
FEBA begins to address these energy inequities in Virginia by restoring the State Corporation Commission (SCC) with its full regulatory authority in Dominion Energy’s 2021 rate case. This proceeding will allow the SCC to review the utility’s over earnings, assess overcharges put onto customers, and direct the utility to issue customer refunds, and lower base rates to prevent future overcharges. The SCC is Virginia's regulatory agency for public utilities and has appointed commissioners who use rate cases to set electric bill base rates for utility customers.
Low-income, Black, and Latinx families in Virginia should not have to bear greater economic burden to pay energy costs in an unfair energy economy, while monopolies like Dominion Energy make millions in over earnings annually. FEBA is a first step, among many during this legislative session, to improve the equitable implementation of Virginia’s electric utility laws and regulations. This type of policy is critical to protect the right of low-income, Black, and Latinx households to clean, affordable, and efficient sources of residential energy.
FEBA passed with bipartisan support in the Virginia House of Delegates by a 77-23 vote more than two weeks ago. Now, the bill is waiting to be heard in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, which will meet again next Monday. This will be the last opportunity for the committee to take action on this bill this legislative session to advance the bill to the Senate floor.
To read our Ten Year Vision for Democracy, Justice, and Progress, please visit https://www.newvirginiamajority.org/tenyearvision
Standing up to the corporate elite is never easy, especially against the promise of much needed financial investment in Richmond’s communities. It takes courage.
Last week, five Richmond City Councilors took a stand against corporate interests and sent a clear message: we see through your fog of propaganda. Their decision to vote against the Navy Hill redevelopment project only revealed what Richmond’s taxpayers already knew, that this was a deal between Mayor Stoney and Dominion CEO Tom Farrell, cooked up behind closed doors and not with our interests in mind.
Let’s be clear, large-scale investments in the Navy Hill neighborhood are welcomed. A redevelopment plan for the area provides an opportunity to build wealth in Richmond and expand prosperity in the state. The question and concern remains to be who benefits.
With the first proposal pushed aside there’s a chance to return to the drawing board, this time with the input and vested interests of those who already call the area home. Downtown Richmond certainly has a long way to go before reaching its potential as an economic engine of Virginia. But we believe it is possible. Starting with a fresh slate, here are a few suggestions for building a downtown Richmond that works for us all:
Continue to invest in infrastructure that benefits Black Richmond – which will benefit all of Richmond.
This includes investing in updates to Richmond public schools, many of which cannot adequately house our students. This also means expanding the rapid bus lines to serve the surrounding majority Black neighborhoods like Churchill and Southside, Richmond. The funding intended for an unnecessary coliseum can find better use here, connecting existing communities to jobs downtown, and preparing the next generation for the workforce of the future.
This area is rich with Black history -- build on it.
Any redevelopment must build on Richmond's rich Black history. By investing in its foundation, there is an opportunity to create a sustainable tourist destination and generate more visitors in downtown Richmond. This area is rich with history: it is the home of various slave rebellions, the rallying center for Black forces leading the liberation of Richmond as the Civil War concluded and the birthplace of the Readjuster Government, a brief moment of progressive, bi-racial governing in Virginia’s history. Oliver Hill, Barbara Johns and other leaders of the Black freedom movement called Richmond home, right up to former Mayor Henry Marsh and the first majority Black City Council Majority of the late 1970’s. Richmond’s history has much to offer. All it requires is a meaningful economic investment in the communities that raised it.
There is hope for a new chapter in Richmond, as we close the door on elite business redevelopment schemes and look forward. We hope it is one that can attract new revenue for downtown AND invest in our lowest income communities. It does not need to be one or the other.