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Environmental justice communities could see pollution problems addressed with CEJA

All people are entitled to live in clean communities free from health hazards, but not everyone enjoys this guarantee. “Environmental Justice” — or EJ — communities are regularly exposed to harmful pollution, but the Clean Energy Jobs Act aims to change that by helping the state make an equitable transition to clean energy.  

CUB staffers live and work in Environmental Justice communities, so we thought it was important to discuss what the term actually means. Although different entities may use different criteria to determine EJ status, the designation is mostly based on two factors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency: 1) disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards and 2) increased vulnerability to those hazards.

For example, a coal plant near City A regularly spews dangerous pollution (also called “particulate matter”) into the air. This same city shows significantly higher numbers of asthma in children and COPD in older adults when compared to similar cities. City A would be classified as an Environmental Justice community because it experiences environmental hazards (particulate matter) and the people living there are more vulnerable to those hazards (respiratory diseases).

Louisiana’s Cancer Alley is one of the most infamous and devastating examples of Environmental Justice communities in the U.S. As the name suggests, the 85-mile strip of land along the Mississippi River — home to more than 150 refineries and plants — has a cancer rate nearly 50 times the national average. 

In Chicago, the Little Village neighborhood is dealing with airborne debris after a retired smoke stack was demolished while COVID-19 — which affects the respiratory system — is still running rampant with daily cases and deaths still on the rise nationwide.

All too often, the communities impacted by pollution are home to majority people of color, low-income, tribal or idigenous communities. Studies conducted across the U.S. have shown time and time again that not only are people of color more heavily impacted by pollution, but they are also more likely than white people to live next to polluters.

To help right some of the wrongs committed against these communities, some Illinois state programs use the Environmental Justice designation to focus their outreach and operations. For example, Illinois Solar for All, a program CUB supports that makes solar more affordable and accessible for low-income households, has a goal to put at least 25 percent of its funding toward EJ communities.

Similarly, the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA), legislation before the Illinois General Assembly, would focus clean energy workforce development initiatives on workers from environmental justice and former coal plant communities, providing work training to those who are most impacted by dirty energy.

The bill would also take advantage of the falling cost of wind and solar energy and put Illinois on a cost-effective path to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, another win for EJ communities. Moving away from notorious polluters and industries with questionable environmental practices — such as coal mining and natural gas fracking — and pivoting toward renewables is a necessary transition for all of Illinois. Nobody wants to breathe dirty air or pay higher bills to prop up dirty power, especially the Environmental Justice communities that are most impacted by these industries. 

Consumer and environmental advocates were hoping to pass CEJA this spring, but with legislative session on hold, it’s unlikely the bill will be considered until this fall. Urge your state legislators to take up CEJA this year and help ensure a fair transition for Illinois environmental justice communities.