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Pa. House measure aims to protect vulnerable communities from heavy pollution burden

  • Rachel McDevitt
Rep. Donna Bullock (D-Philadelphia) speaks in the state capitol about protecting environmental justice communities on April 17, 2024.

Rachel McDevitt / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Rep. Donna Bullock (D-Philadelphia) speaks in the state capitol about protecting environmental justice communities on April 17, 2024.


Advocates are pushing for limits on polluting industries that want to locate or expand in vulnerable communities in Pennsylvania.

The measure from Rep. Donna Bullock (D-Philadelphia) would require companies to estimate the total environmental impact of new or expanded plants on environmental justice areas. Those communities often have a high percentage of people living in poverty or that belong to a minority group.

House Bill 652 would let state regulators deny permits if a plant would create too much of a burden.

Bullock said polluting facilities keep ending up in the same places.

“What that looks like is folks that don’t have the power or don’t have the resources to push back and fight back so they become the victims and vulnerable communities to these bad actors,” Bullock said.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has an internal policy for engaging with EJ communities, but there are no enforceable regulations at the state level.

DEP uses a screening tool to define such areas. The PennEnviroScreen tool gives each part of the state a score based on its pollution burden and population characteristics. Areas with a large amount of pollution and sensitive groups have higher scores. Places that score in the 80th percentile and above are considered EJ areas.

Qiyam Ansari, an organizer with Clean Water Action, said the bill would allow DEP to recognize the heavy environmental and adverse health toll on environmental justice areas and give them a tool to fight polluters.

Ansari has first-hand experience of living in an EJ area. He spent his childhood in Connecticut but moved to Braddock, outside Pittsburgh, as a teen.

He said he didn’t realize how much worse the air quality was, living near a steel mill, until he suffered an extreme asthma attack. He had to be flown to a hospital and put into a coma for two weeks.

“When I woke up from my coma, my doctor told me, ‘if you want to live you need to leave.’ He said, ‘We don’t know if you’re going to survive your next asthma attack, so you should move away,’” Ansari said, adding that his experience is not unique.

The bill passed the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee last year but has been sitting in the chamber’s Rules Committee since September. It has yet to come up for a vote in the full House.

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