Virginia Takes Big Step in Environmental Justice

Recognizing that environmental impacts often disproportionately harm low-income and minority populations, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has created the state’s first Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

The council is charged with advising the executive branch on policies to limit harm to disadvantaged communities and those most vulnerable to pollution and other climate change effects, and it comes at just the right time for Virginia, which has big problems facing its citizens.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signs Executive Order 73 creating the Environmental Justice Advisory Council (photo: NRDC)

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signs Executive Order 73 creating the Environmental Justice Advisory Council (photo: NRDC)

The Vulnerability of Hampton Roads

The 1.7 million people of Hampton Roads, Virginia constitute one of the most vulnerable populations to sea level rise and storm surge in the country. They were spared in the last spate of hurricanes that ravaged the Gulf Coast and Atlantic regions, but they are no less susceptible to severe storms in the future—as are millions of other Virginians. The state’s mayors have been pleading for help at the state level for years, with the  former mayor of Norfolk declaring,  “It’s a threat we can no longer afford to ignore.”

The Asthma Capital of the Nation

Richmond recently claimed the dubious distinction of being named the “asthma capital” of America by the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America, topping the list of U.S. cities that are “the most challenging places to live with asthma.” In urban areas, traffic congestion and power plant emissions have been identified as the main sources of air pollution, triggering elevated incidents of asthma symptoms while also fueling stronger and more frequent storms.

Black children are four times more likely to be admitted to the hospital for asthma than white children, and Latino children are 40% more likely to die from asthma than their white counterparts, highlighting just one of the effects of pollution that disproportionately hurts minority and low-income children.

Nationally, seventy-one percent of blacks live in counties that were in violation of air pollution standards, compared to 58 percent of whites. Similarly, Hispanics are 165% more likely than whites to live in counties with unhealthy levels of particulate matter.

The placement of pollution sources near communities of color and the displacement of communities of color to highly contaminated areas, in fact, is a central concern for the environmental justice movement.

To state it simply, we do not all breathe the same air.

The Energy Burden Facing Minority Families

While the Commonwealth is making progress on clean energy solutions that will help limit the health and climate impacts of air pollution (see Virginia’s uptick from 33rd to 29thnationally in ACEEE’s most-recent state policy rankings), too often these solutions aren’t reaching communities that need it most.

In Richmond, one-third of black households and more than half of all low-income households have more than twice the energy burden of the average household in the city. The numbers are similar for the Commonwealth’s largest city—Virginia Beach. High energy burdens, which refers to the percentage of household income spent on energy bills, is a justice issue at its core because of its regressive impact on minority and low-income communities.

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