'We have a nation which has stunning injustices': Senate Democrats start new environmental push

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent
Sens. Cory Booker and Tammy Duckworth. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images, Anthony Albright/Wikimedia)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate will soon have an Environmental Justice Caucus, to be chaired by three Democrats: Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Tom Carper of Delaware and Cory Booker of New Jersey, who is also competing for the 2020 presidential nomination.

In an interview with Yahoo News, Duckworth said that the aim of the caucus will be to approach environmental issues with attention to matters of race and class. “Oftentimes, black and brown communities are the ones that suffer the biggest consequences of pollution and a lack of enforcement on environmental issues.”

Duckworth said she was motivated to start the caucus because of racial disparities in the way environmental hazards are addressed in Chicago. She pointed to the emissions of ethylene oxide, a known carcinogen, in the wealthy suburb of Willowbrook. A largely white community, Willowbrook has managed to attract media attention to its plight. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is currently addressing the situation there.

But in another Chicago suburb, Waukegan, “they’re not getting the same type of attention,” Duckworth says, because that town’s residents are predominantly nonwhite. She also points to Chicago’s majority-Hispanic 10th Ward, which the Chicago Sun-Times has called a “dumping ground” for heavy industry. Manganese dust, which can be especially detrimental to children, has been known to blow through parts of the area.

Photos from an EPA study showing the S.H. Bell Company and manganese dust buildup on neighboring homes in the Southeast Side of Chicago. (Photos: EPA)

Duckworth says that such disparities are related to other expressions of systemic racism, including discriminatory policing. “As we talk about criminal justice reform, as we talk about economic injustice, environmental injustice is also part and parcel to what so many communities face, and what so many children of color face,” she says. As an example, she points to the prevalence of asthma rates in low-income communities of color, arguing that associated public health costs are then foisted upon the whole of society.

“What happens on the South Side of Chicago affects the North Side of Chicago,” Duckworth argues, respectively referencing the city’s historically African-American section and its wealthier enclave north of downtown. “It ends up costing all the taxpayers more money.”

The Senate’s glossary defines a caucus as an “informal organization ... that exists to discuss issues of mutual concern and possibly to perform legislative research and policy planning for its members.” According to Sarah J. Eckman of the Congressional Research Service, there were 854 caucuses in the last Congress. Some, like the Ad Hoc Congressional Committee on Irish Affairs, have only a few members. But others, like the Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives, have enough members, and enough clout, to boost — or, more likely, kill — legislative efforts.

Carper, who is the ranking member — that is, the top Democrat — on the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works, could make issues of environmental justice a priority during hearings. That could prove challenging because the environmental committee’s chairman, John Barrasso, R-Wyo., is generally hostile to environmental causes.

Duckworth envisions the Environmental Justice Caucus less as a legislative bloc than as a clearinghouse of resources, including legal advice, that she hopes will “provide support to the communities and the organizations that want to come forward.” She adds that “many of these organizations and community groups don’t know who to reach out to, don’t know what to do.” And though the caucus has no staff members just yet, she makes an appeal to groups that may be disposed — with good reason — to see Congress as an impediment, not a helpmate: “Let us help you find the grant money, let us help you to bring attention and to put pressure on the EPA.”

Protesters chant in September 2018 in front of the Oak Brook headquarters of Sterigenics, which uses ethylene oxide gas in nearby Willowbrook to sterilize items as part of its business. (Photo: Mark Black/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images)

Booker, who was mayor of Newark, N.J., before becoming a U.S. senator from the optimistically named Garden State, certainly knows about environmental injustice. While his city, and surrounding communities, have for decades been plagued by heavy industry and toxic dumps, the residents of nearby Bergen and Morris counties continue to enjoy pristine suburbs and idyllic rural scenes.

“We have a nation which has stunning injustices,” Booker says, pointing to the fact that there are nearly 4,000 communities across the United States with lead contamination crises more serious than the one in Flint, Mich. “We’re not acting with a sense of urgency,” Booker says.

At the same time, he disputes that the new caucus is a response to the Trump administration’s seeming lack of concern for environmental laws.

“Let’s not make this all about one person,” he says. “These are trends that have been allowed to go on in our country for years and years and years.” It was, after all, under President Bill Clinton that industry was no longer required to pay a tax that would go to cleaning up the most polluted industrial sites in the nation, which were on the National Priorities List, better known as Superfund.

Only recently, however, has the notion taken hold that pollution has a discriminatory logic of its own. The environmental justice movement has challenged the longstanding image of the environmentalist as a ponytailed white guy in faded Teva sandals and a fraying Patagonia vest, railing about a parking lot in suburban Seattle. “I think the environmental movement needs to be far more inclusive,” Booker acknowledges. “This has to be a rainbow coalition.”

Sediment is visible in a drinking water sample at Aqua Pro-Tech Laboratories in Fairfield, N.J., in March 2016. (Photo: Richard Drew/AP)

Duckworth and Booker both hope to attract Republican support. Booker says he has had “some luck” working with Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama on environmental issues. Duckworth praises Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who has worked to address the water contamination crisis at Camp Lejeune. She also credits Tillis with helping sink the nomination of Michael Dourson, a Trump nominee who was to lead the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, despite his close ties to the very industries he would have regulated.

Duckworth’s ambitions for the caucus are certainly not modest. “That’s easy,” she replies when asked how many members of the Senate she would like to join. “I want a hundred. I would like everyone to be part of our caucus.”

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