Activists push for environmental justice as climate issues hit communities disproportionately
Gerardo Velásquez said he is “one of the lucky ones.”
He worked in solar panel installation in Las Vegas during the summer and survived a dehydration episode. Now a leader with the progressive advocacy nonprofit Make the Road Nevada, he shared the account Monday afternoon at a press conference in front of the Legislative Building.
“Many folks don't end up surviving these kinds of high temperatures that sometimes reach as high as 127 degrees,” Velásquez said in Spanish. “I am thankful that I'm alive.”
His comments came as part of the Legislature’s first-ever Environmental Justice Day, which gave space for environmental advocacy organizations to lobby for legislation to address the way climate change, extreme heat and air and water pollution disproportionately affect certain communities.
The “Outdoor Worker Protection Bill,” still a bill draft request (BDR 682) that has not been formally introduced, would add health protections for outdoor workers in extreme heat, including ensuring shade, water, education and training is provided.
Assemblywoman Selena Torres (D-Las Vegas) said the environment is a “multifaceted and intersectional” issue, and its effects can be seen in the economy, health and education quality.
“As an educator, I saw firsthand the challenges posed by environmental racism in seeing the challenges my students face in the classroom,” Torres said during the press conference. “It's clear that continued inaction on environmental issues bears repeating the same economic and social inequities our community has faced for decades. And it's time that in this session, we confront those issues head on.”
Legislators and activists also touted the “Green Amendment” (AJR3), which would amend the Nevada Constitution to guarantee Nevadan's clean air, clean water and healthy soils and ecosystems.
The resolution would also mandate that the state serve as the “trustee” of Nevada’s natural resources, with directions to “conserve, protect and maintain these resources for the benefit of all people.”
“I used to think that we were on the precipice of an environmental catastrophe. And over the last five years, it's very apparent that we are in the middle of an environmental catastrophe,” said Assemblywoman Sarah Peters (D-Reno), who sponsored the Green Amendment. “It is imperative that we constitutionalize the protections for people to live in spaces in this state … You can't live your best life when you're triaging asthma.”
Update: 3/10/23 at 2:48 p.m. — During a Thursday hearing of the measure, Peters echoed those comments, highlighting issues from polluted groundwater to microplastics in water to argue for the environmental protections proposed under the amendment. She said it would allow Nevadans to hold the government accountable for decisions that affect the state’s natural resources.
The resolution received support from progressive activists, concerned Nevadans and tribal members, who spoke about the negative health effects of environmental pollution in the state, such as cancer clusters at Indian reservations linked to modern development.
But AJR3 faces a broad coalition of opponents — including labor unions, business associations and real estate developers — who on Thursday voiced concerns that the proposed changes would lead to unending lawsuits and roadblocks to new development and renewable energy projects and that they include vague terms that would be left up to interpretation within the state’s courts.
Peters sought to quell those concerns by noting the amendment would simply strengthen environmental protections and that other states, such as New York, that have adopted the Green Amendment have not faced frivolous lawsuits.
If the proposal can overcome the wide range of opposition, it would have to be approved by a majority of lawmakers in consecutive legislative sessions, before it would head to the general election ballot. Those environmental rights would then only be added to the Nevada Constitution if approved by a majority of voters.
Reporter Sean Golonka contributed to this story.
Editor’s Note: A version of this story appears in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2023 legislative session. Sign up for the newsletter here.