Cartwright joins call for ‘environmental justice’

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 12/23/20

APPALACHIAN REGION — During a virtual roundtable with other elected officials, Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA-08) described how the effects of a once-booming coal industry are continuing to impact …

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Cartwright joins call for ‘environmental justice’

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APPALACHIAN REGION — During a virtual roundtable with other elected officials, Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA-08) described how the effects of a once-booming coal industry are continuing to impact Northeast Pennsylvanians.

“Scranton, PA used to be the Houston, TX of America; what has been left behind are abandoned mine lands. These days, these abandoned mine lands pose significant health and environmental hazards,” Cartwright said, mentioning acid mine drainage specifically. “You fly over parts of my district, you can see the orange plumes in the water. You know that these are oxidized metals coming out of abandoned mines and into the watercourses.”

Throughout the Eastern U.S., relics of the coal industry in the form of environmental degradation pose health problems for the people living there, especially people of color, people from low-to-middle income households and indigenous people. In a broader effort to make “environmental justice” a policy priority, members of the House Committee on Natural Resources joined environmental advocates earlier this month to discuss extractive industries’ effects on Appalachia, a region stretching from Mississippi through Northeast PA and into New York State.

Rep. Raul Grijalva from Arizona, who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources and moderated the virtual roundtable, described his own experiences visiting the southern Appalachian region.

“I saw the rivers running orange with acid mine drainage; I looked over an industrial wasteland where a mountain used to be; and I heard directly from residents of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee about the tragedies that they, their families and their friends have experienced.” He continued that though the coal industry has been in steep decline lately, the natural gas industry is poised to take its place.

While the Trump Administration once proclaimed that Appalachia is entering a “petrochemical renaissance,” Grijalva and his colleagues argue that the industrial advancements in the region have come at the expense of residents’ health and the degradation of the environment. Instead of any rebirth, they want a “fair and just transition” away from fossil fuels, Grijalva said.

They aren’t the only ones focusing on the concept of “environmental justice.” According to The National Law Review, the U.S. can expect many such efforts from the incoming Biden-Harris presidency. With a divided Congress, experts predict Biden will rely heavily on executive orders to push this agenda forward. However, there already is some legislation on the table, including the Environmental Justice For All Act, proposed by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and sponsored by Grijalva.

The bill would create new funding programs, enhance parks in urban areas and establish new regulations and advisory bodies, all aimed at addressing “the disproportionate adverse human health or environmental effects of federal laws or programs on communities of color, low-income communities, or tribal and indigenous communities.”

During his opening comments, Cartwright described two pieces of legislation that he has introduced to promote environmental justice in Appalachia: the Abandoned Mine Land Reauthorization Act and the RECLAIM Act.

“It’s well established that communities of color and low-income communities face disproportionate harm from climate change and environmental contamination,” Cartwright said. 

Cartwright’s first bill would reauthorize the Abandoned Mine Lands Trust Fund, paid into by present-day, operating mining companies, and used by local communities to clean up and repurpose old mines. Currently, the trust fund is set to expire in 2021; Cartwright’s bill would extend it for another 15 years. The RECLAIM Act would expand the use of this trust fund.

Cartwright said that his legislation has been well received in the House, but “hasn’t received any Senate consideration at all.”

“I remain hopeful that Congress can come together and pass bipartisan COVID-19 relief legislation that includes assistance to all Americans, including our environmental justice communities as well as reauthorizing the AML Trust Fund early next year,” Cartwright said.

To watch the entire virtual roundtable, visit www.bit.ly/AppalchiaEnvJust

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