The Urgency of Environmental Justice Persists During COVID-19

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


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