As I took my oath of office last month to become the first Black woman to represent Virginia in Congress, I felt the weight of history and my responsibility. I was sworn in during Women’s History Month on March 7, exactly 58 years to the day that voting rights activists faced the brutality of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. It reminded me that the past is still present as the country faces familiar fights for justice — including environmental justice. 

My predecessor, the late Congressman A. Donald McEachin, worked tirelessly to advance environmental justice and made significant progress for the health of our communities. While I cannot replace my friend and colleague, I can continue his work. One of the first bills I helped introduce after coming to Congress was the A. Donald McEachin Environmental Justice for All Act, legislation that was initially developed and championed by Donald and the leading Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, Raúl Grijalva. 

Soot is dangerous, deadly, and the largest environmental health risk in this country.

I share Donald’s belief that every American has the right to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and live in an environment free from pollution. I applaud President Biden for signing the Executive Order revitalizing our country’s commitment to environmental justice with a whole-of-government approach.

It is a step forward that builds on Donald’s lifelong fight for justice with this new executive order directing agencies to consider measures to address and prevent disproportionate and adverse environmental and health impacts on communities, including pollution. It provides an opportunity for the administration to deliver on the commitment by finalizing stronger soot and power plant pollution standards for the health of our communities — to provide equal access to clean air for all, no matter their zip code

Official portrait of Rep. Donald McEachin from the 116th Congress.

Soot is dangerous, deadly, and the largest environmental health risk in this country. Soot, known as particulate matter, is a tiny but powerfully toxic pollutant released by cars, trucks, construction, and other sources. 

Research shows that people of color experience higher than average levels of soot exposure from power plants and industry, light-duty vehicles, diesel-powered heavy-duty trucks, and construction.

Why? Our communities tend to be co-located with sources of this deadly pollutant. A report by the NAACP found that 78 percent of Black Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, and 71 percent live in counties violating federal air-quality standards. 

This life-threatening co-location can be attributed to environmental injustices stemming from the historical legacy of redlining, structural racism, and unfair zoning practices allowing polluters to build power plants and toxic industries near and in Black communities. The results have devastated our health. Black Americans are over three times more likely to die of particulate matter exposure than Whites. Stronger protections against soot would lessen the stark disparities in access to one of our natural rights—clean air. 

Stronger soot protections will save lives. Soot is an invisible killer whose power is often ignored. Exposure to this dangerous pollutant harms health by increasing the risk of asthma, heart attacks, strokes, cancer, and low birth weight. When inhaled, soot particles get into the lungs and kill up to 200,000 people annually in America. In our communities, the impact of soot pollution is severe, with Black Americans suffering from higher rates of heart disease and asthma. 

Strengthening soot standards is an important step toward protecting Black mothers and their families. 

Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than White women. With the added exposure to air pollution, Black women living in polluted areas face an increased risk of going into preterm labor, which increases the risk of stillbirth. Black mothers also have premature babies at a much higher rate than White women and are 2.4 times more likely to have children with low birth weight than White mothers. Strengthening soot standards is an important step toward protecting Black mothers and their families.  

With his strong faith and moral clarity, Congressman McEachin raised the consciousness of Congress through the policies he introduced and supported. He understood the importance of engaging with communities when developing and implementing policy solutions to build a more sustainable future. His sonorous voice is no longer with us, but the familiar fight for equity and environmental justice remains. 

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I will continue his fight. Recently, the EPA’s public comment period calling for stronger soot protections ended with thousands of environmental and community advocates submitting comments. Now we ask the EPA to move swiftly to advance environmental justice by setting the strongest possible soot and power plant standards to protect the nearly 120 million Americans exposed to unhealthy levels of pollution.

With stronger, updated limits on soot pollution, the EPA could save thousands of lives yearly and continue to advance environmental justice. My hope and purpose is to make sure future generations will no longer have to fight familiar fights for clean air and justice.

Jennifer McClellan represents Virginia’s 4th Congressional District and is Virginia’s first Black woman member of Congress. She previously served greater Richmond in the General Assembly for 17 years and passed landmark laws to protect voting rights, safeguard abortion access, tackle climate change, rebuild crumbling schools, expand Obamacare in Virginia, protect workers’ rights, and reform Virginia’s criminal justice system.