Councilor Gym, environmentalists announce Community Health Act to address environmental health disparities

PHILADELPHIA — Today Councilor Helen Gym (At Large) announced the launch of the Municipal Health Act, a pioneering environmental justice law to better protect communities from the adverse health effects of pollution. The bill, written in collaboration with legal and environmental advocates, creates a clearer understanding of how new pollution actually affects communities given existing pollution, demographics and health characteristics. Rather than examining proposals in isolation, this process will place the project in context and prevent concentrated areas from being exposed to disproportionate damage from pollution.

“Philadelphia needs to play a stronger role in protecting the communities most likely to be harmed by pollution: low-income communities, immigrant communities, communities of color and young people,” said Councilor Helen Gym. “We empower the city to use its full authority to fully assess how new projects will impact our communities – and ensure new projects do not exacerbate harm or exacerbate existing inequalities.”

According to this legislation, the Ministry of Health will conduct a comprehensive environmental justice mapping, taking into account environmental, climate, health and demographic indicators. The city will identify environmental justice communities—areas within the city that carry an excessive exposure to pollution and negative health impacts. New industrial projects within or near these areas that would have a significant and adverse impact on community health will be subjected to a cumulative impact analysis. This will allow the city to better understand how the new project would shape the existing community landscape and will enable the Department of Health to request further mitigating steps before the project can proceed.

“This will make Philadelphia a national leader in advancing environmental justice and building a livable, breathable and healthy future for our city,” Councilor Gym said. “Those most affected by pollution have a right to be informed and should have a voice in decisions that affect their lives and communities.”

The Environmental Justice Advisory Commission, whose members were also announced on February 2, will play a key role in guiding and informing the implementation of this legislation. The legislation also requires community contributions to develop the environmental justice maps and to conduct cumulative impact assessments.

“By definition, when we talk about environmental justice, we’re also talking about racial justice,” said Councilor Jamie Gauthier (3rd Ward). “For too long, minority communities have disproportionately borne the burden of pollution and the resulting negative health consequences. Councilmember Gym’s new legislation is a vitally important effort that puts equity at its core and will ultimately lead us to a future where all Philadelphians have safe and healthy communities in which to thrive.

“Today we’re here to say that your life and your health and the health of your families and friends matter,” said Ebony Griffin, environmental justice attorney at the Public Interest Law Center. “Communities of color and low-income communities are mostly the ones struggling to deal with the impacts of pollution and the life-altering consequences of climate change. Regulators and enforcement agencies reinforce this paradigm by failing to put in place equitable approval mechanisms. Today, Philadelphia says no more and is taking its valuable and unique opportunity to provide a healthier environment for its residents. We commend the communities and frontline residents who have fought for so long. We commend the city for taking action to support the health of its vulnerable communities.”

“As a black woman from Nicetown, where one in three children suffers from asthma, including many of my own relatives, I know firsthand what the toll of environmental racism feels like,” said councilor Kendra Brooks (At Large). “And with so many of our community members lacking access to quality healthcare, the cumulative impact is devastating. We can no longer accept the status quo of working-class blacks living shorter lives in toxic neighborhoods full of pollutants – because it’s literally killing us. I applaud Councilor Gym’s bold legislation because it means we can begin to address the legacy of redlining and environmental racism head-on.”

“Public health requires assessing ALL layers of toxic exposures, not just one pollutant at a time,” said Frances Upshaw, co-founder of POWER’s climate justice and jobs team. “We support this legislation because it promotes racial and economic justice on a livable planet. This is a long-awaited step for the city to adequately protect public health.”

“The cumulative impacts legislation would help relieve communities of the burden of defending themselves and empower city government to do the work our taxpayers’ dollars are paying for,” said Shawmar Pitts, resident of Grays Ferry and strategy organizer at Philly Thrive. “We hope the cumulative impacts legislation will reassure local residents that after decades of damage from pollution, we don’t have to fight the same battle all over again and our children don’t have to fight the same battle just to have a healthy environment.”

“Environmental justice guarantees every Philadelphian the fundamental right to live in a safe and healthy environment, regardless of race, income or zip code,” said Adam Nagel, campaign manager at PennFuture. “Councillor Helen Gym’s Community Health Act is an important step in prioritizing the health and well-being of neighborhoods that have long suffered from harmful environmental policies.”

“This is long overdue given the city’s significant asthma and cancer rates, particularly in low-income black communities, and will be a great tool for communities trying to prevent further deterioration in public health from additional industrial air pollution,” said Joseph Otis Minott, Esq , Executive Director and Chief Counsel of the Clean Air Council.

February is Environmental Justice Month in the city of Philadelphia.


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