City Council Passes Environmental Justice Bills

New task force will identify and improve cases of unequal distribution of environmental burdens

On April 5th, two environmental justice bills were passed in New York City Council. Both bills establish a permanent working group in City Hall whose focus is to identify and define environmental justice issues, as well as guidelines to approaching those issues. “Environmental justice” refers to reversing the trend of low-income communities of color bearing an unfair burden of the worst environmental consequences. One prominent example in New York City is solid waste processing, where poorer districts process the waste of affluent districts, often past capacity.

Introduction 886, which passed last Wednesday, requires the Mayor to establish a permanent environmental justice working group, with representatives from the Departments of Transportation, Health and Mental Hygiene, Buildings, Environmental Protection, City Planning, and Sanitation. The group will focus on identifying environmental injustice issues in which environmental consequences or responsibilities are unfairly distributed between communities. Introduction 886’s primary sponsor is Councilmember Inez Barron, representing the 42nd District. Barron’s husband and Council predecessor, Charles Barron, first introduced very similar bills in the Council ten years ago.

Introduction 359, which also passed last Wednesday, requires the group established by the Intro 886 to conduct studies that identify the specific locations and geographic boundaries of environmental injustice. The working group will also identify other data, studies, programs, resources available, and policy recommendations that can help advance the group’s goals. The group will maintain a publicly available, online map of the environmental injustice issues the group identifies.

Community health indicators that the working group can identify could include air quality, access to parks and open space, number of brownfields sites, or the frequency of sites that harm human health. These issues could be added to the comprehensive community differences already measured by New York City Community Health Profiles, including basic health information, like infant mortality and stroke hospitalization, but also housing quality, incarceration rates, school absenteeism, and even the square footage of supermarkets.

In his OneNYC from 2015, Mayor de Blasio stated “it is imperative that we empower communities through public dissemination of data and the creation of venues for participatory planning.  We need the help of community stakeholders to identify at-risk populations, toxic hot spots, research gaps, and effective implementation strategies.” The creation of this working group, and public availability of issues, data, and strategies, is one way to implement this vision.