Landfill in Danbury, Connecticut.

Connecticut continuously ranks as one of the greenest and most environmentally friendly states in the United States. In 1973, Connecticut enacted its first environmental policy called the Connecticut Environmental Policy Act (CEPA), which is an evaluation of how the state’s operations affect the environment. This policy was a crucial step forward in environmental preservation for the state. This policy is important because of its requirement for public review.

This primarily allows the citizens of Connecticut to voice their concerns and provide feedback on how they, alongside their community, would be affected through the actions of state agencies. Yet it seems throughout the years, that the value and importance of public review have diminished, notably in the realm of environmental policy. Public input in environmental matters is essential, and I believe that House Bill: 6551 will enhance the ability of the public to participate in the process.

Legislation like this is important because it gives people a voice on how their environment is affected by state agencies and their proposed plans. However, the problem with legislation like CEPA, is that rules like this simply “give” people a voice but does not equate to their voices being heard.

The problem with environmental bills prior to HB 6551, such as the environmental justice bill HB 5813, was that they lacked major penalties for big polluters. The primary goal of HB 5813 was to protect distressed municipalities by mandating developers to host public engagement opportunities and communicate with its neighboring communities about their operation and how it will impact the area. Even with the revisions to  HB 5813 in late 2020, the only changes made were increased public opportunity to voice their concerns by requiring owners of these facilities to proactively publicize hearings in “environmental justice communities.”

Mathieu Aguilar

According to a 2020 Connecticut study, both Hispanic and Black children are nearly five times more likely to suffer from asthma than white children. Moreover, the progression of the Killingly Gas Plant is a prime example of legislation being used as a “surface level protection.” In other words, despite the law mandating certain environmental policies, its repercussions lacked severity. As a result, the “consequences” were something polluters were willing to face. It is evident that the policy does not go to great lengths (or even sufficient lengths) to protect the very citizens voicing their opinions on the construction of the plant if construction continues to progress. That said, if environmental well-being is truly a priority for the state of Connecticut, one should ask why the construction of Killingly continues to this day.

Through all the successes that the state of Connecticut has achieved throughout the years in providing quality in environmental assurance, it has been at the expense of communities like Hartford, Waterbury, New Haven, Stamford, and Bridgeport. These five cities alone make up 19% of the state’s pollution, 20% of all potential pollution sources, 51% of all the state’s population in poverty, and 71% of the state’s minority population. There is still much more that needs to be done, especially for those who are disproportionately segregated and affected by environmental injustice.

Nonetheless, the purpose of HB 6551 is “to establish a working group that will identify disadvantaged communities for purposes of greenhouse gas reduction implications and to amend the environmental justice statute to enable disapproval of facility and permit applications when certain determinations concerning adverse environmental or public health effects are made.” Having a diverse portfolio of representatives ranging from individuals in the Environmental Justice Program of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protections (“DEEP”), the Department of Housing, the Department of Public Health, and the Labor Department will help solidify and strengthen the public voice to ensure that their voices are not just heard but also are valued.

With its promising claims, and the testimony of 50 individuals voicing their support of HB: 6551, I feel confident that this bill is a step forward in the right direction to protecting low-income and disproportionately affected communities. The establishment of this working group is a critical first step in ensuring the environmental wellbeing of disadvantaged communities within Connecticut.

Though this bill seems long overdue, it single-handedly is not enough to transform the current environmental state that low-income minorities face today. We must not take this opportunity for granted and let history repeat itself in continuing to disproportionately affect communities of color while the majority of the state lives in a cleaner environment.  It is through the unity of Connecticut’s leaders and its citizens doing their part to make sure that voices are not just given to the public for the sake of it, but to actually ensure that their voices are heard.

Mathieu Aguilar is majoring in Philosophy and Public Policy and Law at Trinity College.

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