Climate Justice Advisory Groups Are in Vogue. But Are State Agencies Listening?

As hurricanes flood superfund sites and prompt chemical leaks at oil refineries, corporations and governments can no longer hide the fact that low-income communities of color are disproportionately exposed to industrial toxins and particularly vulnerable to the climate crisis.

In an attempt to address these injustices, state and federal agencies have launched formal groups to advise government agencies, designed to bring in representatives from communities most impacted by the climate crisis in what is often expressed as an effort to make climate policy-making more participatory. The movement for Black lives has amplified attention to countless instances of environmental racism. That same spotlight has also shed light on agencies that decide not to deliver justice when put to the test, leading some members of these groups to question the degree to which the state agencies they advise are actually listening.

On November 16, a dozen members of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Environmental Justice (EJ) Advisory Group quit en masse in response to the MPCA’s decision to issue a key state water-crossing permit for Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline expansion. “The Line 3 pipeline will cross over 200 bodies of water, inevitably poisoning rivers, wetlands, and wild rice beds. It will emit as many greenhouse gases as running 50 new coal plants 24 hours a day,” the group wrote in a letter to the MPCA, continuing to explain how the agency’s decision to authorize the pipeline was “an insult to the three tribal nations that strongly oppose its construction,” and a “final straw after increasing disappointment in the MPCA’s failure to build on the hard work of dedicated [EJ advisory group] members over the years.”

Charles Frempong-Longdon was one of the 12 to resign. Frempong-Longdon, an organizer with the Sierra Club North Star Chapter, had applied for a position on the EJ advisory group in the winter of 2019. He told Truthout he thought it could be an opportunity to gain access to officials with the power to intervene in polluting projects like a downtown Minneapolis waste incinerator and a neighborhood dotted with superfund sites known as the “arsenic triangle.” He got the position, and started attending meetings in February 2020.

“But there was frustration almost immediately because the decision on Line 3 was something that a lot of the [EJ advisory group] folks wanted to talk about, but it was consistently pushed to the next meeting,” Frempong-Longdon said. According to a March press release, the agency did extend its public comment period and held three “telephone town halls.”

Frempong-Longdon says the MPCA continued to divert requests for discussion about Line 3 during EJ advisory group meetings, in favor of topics like electric cars and professional development opportunities. He says he grew disillusioned over the summer and began thinking of quitting the advisory group. It felt futile, he said, to show up for meetings with the commissioner amid ongoing protests in response to the killing of George Floyd and to be steered away from racial justice topics. According to a November 2017 report by the NAACP and the Clean Air Task Force, Black people are 75 percent more likely to live near polluting projects like oil and gas facilities.

As In These Times has reported, Line 3 construction heightens the risk of exposing Indigenous women and children to violent crime and sex trafficking. A potential oil spill — which Enbridge has a history of — would jeopardize Ojibwe tribal members’ rights to hunt, fish and feed their families. “The fact that a lot of our questions fizzled out was kind of baffling to me,” Frempong-Longdon said.

After the MPCA issued the Line 3 permit on November 12, Frempong-Longdon found out through an email thread that many other EJ advisory group members had, like him, already considered quitting. So they decided to join forces. “Unless [EJ advisory groups] are given teeth, it becomes a space of tokenization of really wonderful people,” Frempong-Longdon said. “At a certain point you disenfranchise people so much that there is really no interest for community members to actually engage with you.”

When asked for a response to the allegation that the MPCA did not adequately address EJ advisory group concerns over Line 3, MPCA Communications Director Darin Broton told Truthout in an email that the EJ advisory group “is not a Line 3 advisory committee; rather it is meant to help the agency improve its engagement and outreach to communities throughout the state. It also helps inform overall permitting and regulatory approaches.”

Many governments have launched environmental justice task forces and advisory groups in recent years. The MPCA adopted an “environmental justice framework” in 2015, stating its intention “to renew and strengthen our agency’s actions and to put the principles of environmental justice into practice.” It formed the EJ advisory group the following year. And state agencies elsewhere have publicly adopted similar frameworks and climate or environmental justice advisory groups on a similar timeframe. In May 2018, North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality announced its Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board. Public officials in Massachusetts formed an Equity Working Group in November 2019, which has since been renamed the Climate Justice Working Group. Michigan launched its first Environmental Justice Advisory Council in January 2020.

The advisory groups have been shaped in part by increasing visibility of the movement for Black lives and “the desire for local [and] state governments to look like they’re responsive to issues of racial justice,” director of the Vermont Law School’s Environmental Justice Clinic, Marianne Engelman Lado, told Truthout. But groups run the gamut in terms of their influence. There’s a slew of questions that need to be asked to determine if the groups’ council is meaningful, she said. “Do they have subpoena power? What are they expected to do? How frequently do they meet? Do they have an annual report? Do they have formal responsibilities?”

Lado says groups that are established through statute can have more pull than others that are not. That’s because the laws tend to be tied to funding for staff members with independent authority. North Carolina’s Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board was formed by the environmental agency’s secretary, Michael Regan, who President-elect Joe Biden has nominated to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Notably, in spite of concerns raised by that advisory committee, Regan’s agency issued a key water quality certification for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, The New York Times reports, though the project was ultimately canceled by the developers earlier this year.

By comparison, the Climate Justice Working Group (CJWG) in New York was established through the state’s 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The group, which has only been meeting since August 2020, is tasked with concrete responsibilities, like negotiating a definition of “disadvantaged communities” for the Climate Action Council’s final plan to transition New York to 100 percent zero-emission electricity by 2050. Forming the definition will have tangible impacts — it will determine which communities disproportionately harmed by pollution and the climate crisis receive Climate Act funding.

Eddie Bautista, CJWG member and executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, told Truthout there’s a categorical difference between being tasked with collaborating on a plan for which there is a deadline, as in New York, and offering opinions that an agency is not necessarily required to address, as Frempong-Longdon experienced in Minnesota.

Lado says as more states adopt environmental justice laws — such as those now on the books in New York and Virginia — EJ advisory groups could gain specific duties and become more meaningful. “I think it’s important to see those advisory councils not as a one off, but as related to the larger social context and the movement for environmental justice that’s being adopted by state agencies,” Lado said.

Still, it remains to be seen if New York’s CJWG working group members will see their communities’ wishes included in the massive climate plan New York is pulling together, especially because the 22 Climate Action Council members Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed, many of which are heads of agencies, hold authority over the final plan. Bautista said he feels cautiously optimistic about what’s been shared in the meetings so far, but emphasized that members have “not landed on what we want yet.”

At a December 2 meeting, Bautista questioned the Transportation Advisory Panel’s consideration of green hydrogen and biofuels. “A lot of us are very concerned about how these alternative fuels in many ways will depend on maintaining our dependence on fossil fuel infrastructure — gas pipelines and the like — when clearly the [Climate Act] is intended to move us away from dependence on fossil fuel infrastructure,” he said.

In response to a comment by Sarah Crowell, the director of Planning, Development and Community Infrastructure for the NYS Department of State, on the intention to provide data on industrial sites to “localities and communities” to help them understand and participate in decision making, CJWG member Elizabeth Yeampierre, the director of the Brooklyn-based grassroots organization UPROSE, explained that marginalized communities in New York didn’t need help understanding the pollution problem. Over 1.2 million New Yorkers live within one mile of a power plant, a disproportionate number of whom are low-income people of color.

Instead of just data, Yeampierre said, frontline community members need support for the plethora of innovative projects they’ve already been working on but lack funding to operationalize, like a proposal to transform the industrial waterfront from a cluster of aging natural gas power plants into a regional hub for offshore wind energy.

“We’re not just talking about renewable energy and offshore wind. We’re also talking about food security and connecting Brooklyn to upstate farmers and using the waterways,” she explained of the community’s vision. “We would urge you, instead of exploring the literature that exists out there about what climate adaptation mitigation and resilience looks like, to look locally at what is happening in the state of New York that is being led by a frontline community.”

In their November resignation letter, the former Minnesota Pollution Control Agency EJ advisory group members struck a similar chord. “Our communities demand action and this agency cannot claim to promote justice without results that improve our lives.”