Republicans who’ve spent years vehemently opposing progressive environmental justice policies are in an awkward position after the Feb. 3 train derailment in Palestine, Ohio, and its release of toxic chemicals into the community.
Conservatives have enjoyed denouncing environmental proposals, such as the Green New Deal, that have highlighted the need to repair and assist communities damaged by energy and climate disasters. This comes as part of the GOP’s so-called anti-woke agenda.
But theoretically, beneficiaries of the environmental justice agenda include places like Palestine, which has a median household income that falls well below the national median. Republicans are trying to capitalize on the issue by baselessly trying to criticize Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, but they might be better served looking in a mirror.
To this day, many Republicans have sworn against the Biden administration’s policies around environmental justice — policies that could ultimately be vital to Ohio residents and others affected by environmental catastrophes.
(Check out Joy Reid’s excellent primer on the history of environmental justice measures at the start of this video.)
Environmental justice activists on the ground in Ohio know about this right-wing aversion to the president’s policies and are urging Republican Gov. Mike DeWine to declare a federal emergency in order to secure FEMA aid from the Biden administration. (Note: The Federal Emergency Management Agency plays a large investigatory role in the U.S. government’s environmental justice initiatives.)
This request seems to put these activists at odds with the Republican Party, broadly speaking. Just last week, Republicans on the House Budget Committee released a list of budget cuts they would support in an agreement with Democrats to raise the nation’s debt limit. The proposal called the $60 billion allocated for environmental justice in the Inflation Reduction Act “wasteful” and said the funding should be rescinded.
Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, represents the congressional district that includes Palestine, but he too has opposed environmental justice efforts. For example, he supported a measure prohibiting federal money from being used for environmental justice and opposed a measure meant to emphasize the need for more environmental justice funding.
Johnson clearly aimed to put a positive spin on things during a Monday interview on Fox News. He said cleanup was underway and things were headed toward a “happy ending,” but he said “other expenses down the road” will depend on the investigation into the explosion. If you’re wondering where he stands on federal aid, Johnson claimed in a separate interview that he had not received any request to contact FEMA.
Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio is another right-winger who has been a vocal critic of environmental justice policies, dubiously framing them as ultimately benefiting China.
But Vance seemed to be singing a different tune on Monday.
In a statement released by his office, the senator said, “there is a troubling trend of catastrophic infrastructure problems in our country, and more than a few reports of sabotage. My office will be investigating these concerns in the weeks to come.” He said there are many unanswered questions, including about “the Transportation Department’s regulatory approach to our nation’s rail system.” And he vowed to work with FEMA on the response.
I don’t know if Vance is aware of this, but part of FEMA’s environmental justice responsibilities include investigations into how federal agencies — like the Transportation Department — disparately affect communities. So … maybe he’s not against environmental justice after all?
It’s yet more proof that conservatives’ culture war may play well in some focus groups, but in practice it’s an untenable, illogical set of beliefs.