NCEL Blog

The Green New Deal for States: Part IV

July 27, 2019 | This is the fourth part of a series covering how states are leading the way in achieving the broad goals outlined in Green New Deal. The series serves as an informative resource for legislators on a topic that has recently captured the public discourse on environmental policy. This is not an endorsement of the Green New Deal or its supporters.

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Clara Summers
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The National Environmental Protection Act, Clean Air Act, and Clean Water Act, among other federal statutes, are the bedrock of our national framework on environmental policy. The programs, policies, and legal cases these laws initiated have lead to unprecedented protections of both the natural environment and public health. As always, much more work still needs to be done, particularly in a time of rapidly changing political forces and global climate. States continue to build on this bedrock framework, seeing it as a floor rather than a ceiling of protection. 

In this series, so far we’ve covered actions that states have taken to cut emissions, advance a clean energy economy, and support the development of new and resilient 21st-century infrastructure. Now we’ll take a look at important efforts to protect the natural environment and, in the process, public health. 

Goal #4: Safeguard public health through environmental protection, ensuring that all people have access to clean air and water, healthy food, nature, and a sustainable environment.

Clean Air

The biggest risks to the quality and safety of the air we breathe come from the burning of fossil fuels, either for power generation like in coal plants or for transportation like your standard car.  Burning fossil fuels releases an array of harmful pollutants, such as particulate matter, mercury, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOC) which can create harmful ozone. The concentration of these pollutants may vary between fuels types and processes but all have a compounding health impact on communities with regular exposure, such as minority and low-income communities. 

Since states are in charge of the implementation of air regulations and programs, they have the opportunity to improve oversight and monitoring of pollution sources and in remedying the effects on communities. 

Established in 2017 by AB617, the California Community Air Protection Program (CAPP) supports community-level air monitoring, enforcement, and grant-funded emission reduction programs led by community-based organizations.

This year, Michigan introduced S.B.0060 to create an Air Quality Enforcement and Mitigation Fund supplied by civil and administrative fines on polluters, with funds directed towards the most impacted communities via local grants; before, these funds went into the general budget. 

Reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from both electric power and transportation sectors also has the benefit of reducing the harmful co-pollutants associated with fossil fuel combustion. As was discussed in Part II of this series, states are taking the lead in cutting GHG emissions through various pathways, like putting a price on carbon, implementing strict vehicle fuel and emissions standards, and reducing consumption of fossil energy by expanding clean energy development. States that set a path to a decarbonized economy are not only mitigating impacts to climate change but also protecting their citizens from pollutants that are associated with the fossil fuel industry. 

Clean Water

The United States has made significant improvements in protecting the vital water resources we depend on. However, the work is never finished. Not only must we safeguard natural water systems from new emerging sources of pollution, but we must also improve the infrastructure that services and provides water to our communities.

The drinking water of over six million Americans has been found to contain highly fluorinated chemicals like PFAS at concentrations of concern with exposure to PFAS linked to adverse health outcomes. Due to widespread concern and lack of significant federal action, states are implementing their own stringent standards for PFAS. In 2017, Michigan introduced HB 5375 that would have set maximum contaminant levels for PFOS and PFOA in drinking water at 5 parts per trillion, the strictest in the nation, with New Hampshire, New York, and Pennsylvania proposing similar bills. This year Vermont enacted S 49, which set an interim standard at 20 parts per trillion leaving room for a more stricter limit down the road. New Hampshire also introduced HB 691 which would require the Department of Health and Human Services to offer and pay for blood testing for PFAS chemicals for people exposed via private or public water supplies.

Lead in contaminated water and soils continues to pose a significant risk in communities across the country. Legislation enacted in New York and Illinois require testing for lead in public schools. Legislation previously introduced in Michigan would provide financing on water supply bills to replace residential lead pipe service lines HB 5423. In 2016, Ohio passed HB 512 which shortened the deadline for utility companies for notifying residents of lead in drinking water and increases penalties for lead contamination.

Conservation and Access to Nature

In the United States, four major federal agencies manage 614 million acres of public land (26.6% of U.S. land), while state and local governments alone manage a total of 119 million acres of land (8.7% of total U.S. land). These are important numbers to remember. Not only due protecting land a means of conserving wildlife, but the natural systems that are protected provide vital benefits and services to the general public. 

For one, access to the outdoors for recreation has been shown to be a powerful driver of economic growth, estimated to supply $887 billion in consumer spending and 7.6 million American jobs. Additionally, time spent outside has been shown to have tangible physical and mental health benefits, such as reducing the risk of obesity, reduced stress, helping treat ADHD in children and even ameliorate PTSD symptoms in veterans. States have been playing an important role in conserving the natural environment and ensuring current and future generations have access to the outdoors. Some states have implemented policies to encourage outdoor access, like Washington and Nevada, while others have created state offices to support the outdoor industry and improve outdoor recreation opportunities, like Colorado and North Carolina.

Perhaps most important is that protected lands and habitat maintain stable ecosystem services for both people and wildlife, like water filtration and nutrient cycling. A key service that is gaining more attention is the ability of healthy plant life, such as in forests, grasslands, and even aquatic environments, to absorb and retain heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. A study by the National Parks Service found that lands managed by the agency alone sequester more than 14.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, providing an estimated societal value of $582.5 million per year. If one of the end goals of Green New Deal policies is to mitigate climate change, land and habitat conservation must be a part of that.

Takeaways:

The clearest takeaway for you should be that environmental protection is more than simply conserving our natural environment – it is fundamentally about protecting public health.

States have some surprising leeway in advancing protections beyond what is established at the federal level. That bodes well for the public at large since air, water, and wildlife know no borders. History has shown that the actions of a handful of states can spur the federal government to act and that will certainly be true in the decades ahead. The goal also highlights an important component, if not a worldview, about environmental protection and this is stewardship. Careful stewardship of the world around us practically guarantees a better and healthier existence for us humans on the planet.