For more than twenty-five years, Congressional Black Caucus members have taken an active role in promoting environmental justice in their home communities and in communities of color throughout the United States. They have displayed their public advocacy in a number of ways, including building partnerships with environmental organizations and community-based organizations to increase awareness about environmental issues.
In 1999, the Congressional Black Caucus first convened the Environmental Justice Braintrust at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference. Established under the leadership of Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-SC), the forum brings together a wide range of technical experts, policy makers, medical officials, and community activists to discuss issues related to environmental justice, including public health and economic development.
The National Environmental Policy Commission (NEPC), an outgrowth of the Braintrust, issues an Environmental Justice Report at the Braintrust each year. This report offers important recommendations to Congress about what can be done to advance environmental justice in the United States. According to Rep. Clyburn, “This Commission was created out of the need to develop a comprehensive national environmental justice policy that fosters the protection of human health and the environment, and ensures environmental justice while promoting economic development.”
CBC Members have used the Annual Legislative Conference to address a number of issues related to environmental justice. These include natural disaster relief, health care, and environmental policy. In 2005, the Congressional Black Caucus established the Environmental Justice Braintrust on Hurricane Katrina in response to the events which occurred on the Gulf Coast. Reps. James Clyburn, Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL), and Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS) hosted this event meant to identify environmental issues, recommend strategies and assist policy makers in the development of progressive comprehensive environmental policy. Rep. Hastings hosted a panel discussion during the 109th Congress entitled, Environmental Justice: Identification to Implementation: A Policy Discussion about Current Environmental Challenges and the Legacy of Executive Order 12898. In 2007, Reps. James Clyburn and Albert R. Wynn (D-MD) hosted a Braintrust to raise awareness about health disparities and the environment.
CBC members have also taken a leading role in writing letters to policy makers, meeting with key environmental groups and leaders, and holding information sessions in their communities. For instance, in the early 1990s, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) brought national attention to the neglected state of urban rivers polluted by trash, raw sewage, and runoff from city streets when she fought tirelessly for the clean-up of the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. In 1997, then senior chief deputy whip in the Democratic Caucus, Rep. John R. Lewis (D-GA), sent a letter to President William Clinton urging his support for improved air quality standards – arguing asthmatic children and the elderly suffer particularly from ozone and particulate pollution. In 1998, CBC members, including Reps. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI); Jessie L. Jackson, Jr. (D-IL); William J. Jefferson (D-LA); Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-VA); John R. Lewis, and Maxine Waters (D-CA), met with the EPA’s Council on Environmental Quality and the President’s Initiative on Race on behalf of the residents of Covent, Louisiana. The group worked alongside the environmentalist group Greenpeace in their efforts to challenge the Shintech Corporation and to press their claim that the site’s location was discriminatory to low-income minorities, most of whom are black.
Following a November 2007 oil spill in the San Francisco Bay, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) was very active in investigating the causes of the spill, monitoring the clean up, and working towards preventing future disasters.
Members continue to broaden the scope of environmental justice in their policy-making activism. In winter 2008, Rep. Lewis authored “Beloved Community” for Waterkeeper Alliance, an organization dedicated to discussing the importance of clean water in America’s communities. His words underscore the importance of CBC’s fight to ensure environmental justice for all:
We all need to breath fresh air, drink clean water and eat safe food. These things are all necessary for us to live, and I believe that access to these vital components of human life is a sacred right that should not be violated. (Lewis, #24 Environmental Justice)