'Cancer Alley' groups want to know how new industry impacts health. This bill could require it.
The reboot of a 2020 environmental bill aims to bolster protections for Black, Indigenous and low-income communities often disproportionately harmed by pollution — an issue documented across Louisiana.
Crafted by Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat, the “Environmental Justice for All Act” attempts to tackle a wide range of issues: codifying President Joe Biden’s executive orders on environmental justice, creating grants to help research and heal the health of overburdened areas and expanding the federal process for communicating the environmental impact of major projects.
But one of its key provisions would address one of Louisiana advocates’ greatest complaints: assessing the cumulative health impact industrial projects pose on residents.
“The cumulative effect is the right to know not just what one little Formosa plant is going to do, but what the accumulation of the 25 along that stretch are doing,” Grijalva, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, said Saturday while touring chemical plants in St. John and St. James parishes.
While the problem isn’t unique to Louisiana, advocates point to the 85-mile stretch of Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans as the poster child for environmental injustice. Nicknamed “Cancer Alley,” the region, which includes the parishes Grijalva visited, holds more than 150 petrochemical plants, andresearch has found that low-income and Black residents there bear a higher cumulative risk of cancer than whiter, more affluent areas.
As recently as 2020, when COVID-19 spread rampantly, astudy reinforced that finding by examining census tract data that showed a higher burden of air pollution was associated with larger percentages of Black residents and increased unemployment. Higher death rates from the virus were associated with exposure to respiratory and immunological hazards — and a larger proportion of Black residents.
Though companies are required to keep pollution below a legal threshold, that limit isn’t necessarily protective of human health, said Kimberly Terrell, a staff scientist for the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, especially if other sources nearby emit a similar level of a chemical with similar risks.
“There is nothing to protect people from combined exposures,” she said.
After touring toxic hotspots across the country to promote his bill, Grijalva said residents' worries were similar to those living in the River Parishes: how will a new industrial facility impact the air quality, especially when built alongside various existing facilities?
“The commonalities have been that it's usually communities and local leadership seemingly up against insurmountable odds,” he said. “Concentrated power — political and economics.”
The bill, he said, would require federal and state agencies to conduct cumulative impact analyses when considering whether to grant a new permit or a permit renewal under the Clean Air or Water Acts.
Right now, they aren’t required in most situations, though environmental groups suing agencies over projects often ask for them. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently conducting a cumulative impact study of a $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics complex proposed in St. James Parish after legal challenges over the past two years.
The analyses called for in the bill would look at a defined area and study whether the combined effect of all pollution emitted in the vicinity poses a public health risk.
Currently, when the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality looks at cumulative effects, it looks at the total exposure to a single pollutant from different sources, rather than to all chemicals that could contribute to a particular illness, Terrell said.
“Each pollutant is basically considered in isolation when it comes to health impacts,” she said.
Environmental advocates like Gen. Russell Honore, who founded the Green Army, said the bill’s protections are overdue.
“If you're in a fenceline community, as we call here, you could have a plant on one side, plant on the other side, the plant across the river. Depending on which way the wind blows, you get cumulative effect,” Honore said Saturday.
Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Greg Langley said, if passed, the Environmental Protection Agency would define the scope of terms like cumulative impact, and states would need to wait until the federal agency crafts new rules to guide their processes.
Langley, however, did not answer questions about DEQ's current processes for cumulative impact studies or specify how those would change if the bill passes.
House Republicans on the Natural Resource Committee, including Louisiana Rep. Garret Graves, have voiced sharp opposition to the legislation, going so far as to question the premise of environmental justice and systemic racism in a virtual hearing in February.
Graves, who feels the federal permitting process is already riddled with unnecessary red tape, said he didn’t believe project backers were intentionally discriminating against people.
“It’s a dangerous trajectory for us to force this conspiracy of racism on all of these decisions,” Graves said in February.
But environmental justice experts say intention isn’t what qualifies a situation as environmental racism so much as impact.
On Tuesday, he also argued the bill could worsen already rising energy prices by increasing royalties on oil, gas and coal leases.
“It's very difficult to figure out how putting additional regulatory obstacles or adding cost to energy is something that's actually gonna bolster or help disadvantaged communities, which are communities that are most price sensitive to these items,” Graves said.
In addition to increasing royalty rates, new fees would be added on non-producing oil and gas leases, or leases used for drilling less than 90 days of the year, and the bill’s creators view it as an incentive for oil and gas companies to use the leases they manage as Biden and conservation groups have criticized producers for “hoarding” public land amid record profits. Those fees would also be added to all new federal leases.
Half of the additional revenues collected from the royalty increases would enter a federal Just Transition fund, while the other half would go to states. The money in the fund would create grants for communities that have been historically dependent on fossil fuels economically — like many in Louisiana.
Rep. Clay Higgins, who represents southwest Louisiana where residents live in another industry hotspot, said he also firmly opposed the bill. He cited similar concerns over impacts to the domestic oil and gas industry. Neither congressman offered an alternative way to address the public health concerns behind the bill.
But Rep. Troy Carter, the lone Louisiana Democrat whose district includes “Cancer Alley,” has signed on as a co-sponsor after pledging his commitment to environmental justice issues while campaigning last year. He said the provisions would make it so people wouldn’t have to “die for their jobs.”
“The suggestion that somehow everyone is anti-business, and we don't care about jobs — of course, people care about jobs. Of course, people care about taxation. … But none of it matters if you don't have safe, healthy communities,” Carter said Tuesday. “Because those very people that make those pumps run, that make those processes operate, they’re human beings.”
Louisiana Reps. Julia Letlow and Steve Scalise didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Grijalva wants to have a vote on the House floor by the end of September, should it leave the committee. He and Carter said they felt cautiously optimistic about the bill’s future.
In the Senate, Illinois Democrat Sen. Tammy Duckworth has introduced the bill as well. No major climate or environmental legislation has passed through the Senate since Biden entered office, and Graves said he expects it to die there.