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Sen. Cory Booker on Environmental Justice, Nuclear Power & “Savage Racial Disparities” in the U.S.

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The first-ever Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice, co-moderated by Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman and former EPA official Mustafa Santiago Ali, was held last Friday at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey was one of six Democratic candidates to share his plans to confront environmental injustices and the climate crisis. Booker spoke about racial disparities in the U.S., the creation of renewable energy jobs and the water contamination crises in cities across the country, including his hometown of Newark. “My community is not alone,” Booker said. “Lead service lines should not be in the ground in a 21st century America, period.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn now to the presidential race. The first-ever Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice was held last Friday at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. I co-moderated the event with former EPA official Mustafa Santiago Ali. Earlier in the week, we aired our interview with Senator Elizabeth Warren. Today we turn to Senator Booker of New Jersey. Mustafa Ali began the questioning.

MUSTAFA ALI: So, we know that currently our federal agencies have withdrawn themselves from addressing environmental injustices that are going on. Can you talk about what your administration will do to fix that problem?

SEN. CORY BOOKER: I’m smiling because he’s asking me questions that he knows we’ve talked about. So, first and foremost, what he means by the federal agencies pulling back is the EPA, they’re at half the levels they were in 2010 on inspections right now. The money they’re collecting from corporate polluters is at like a 15-year low. We have a federal government that right now is saying, “We’re going to let corporate polluters do what they want to do.” And we’re in a time of Grover Norquist, you know, this era where Republican legislators sign this pledge, no new taxes. This didn’t start in the time of Trump; this has been going on for a long time. Which means a lot of the mechanisms we had before to clean up these environmental sites, the federal government is no longer pulling in the resources, the taxes, necessary to clean it up.

One great example of this is just the cleanup of Superfund sites in America. We had a bipartisan accord. In fact, Reagan reauthorized a small tax on corporate polluters, chemical companies like those that are in Cancer Alley, to give us a fund to clean up Superfund sites. Well, even though Mitch McConnell voted on it when Reagan was president, he refused to reauthorize it now. And what we see now is, because there’s no money in the Superfund cleanups funds, you see the number of Superfund sites growing in America.

And so, I have a very strong belief, and it’s in the legislation that Mustafa was one of the people that helped us write, is — I just don’t trust the government right now on this issue. And that means that one of the best ways to deal with this issue is to push the power back to people. And so, my legislation, that I wrote as senator, that will become law if I’m president of the United States, is to make sure that local communities have the power, have standing, to sue their governments, which right now they can’t. And so, we know there’s a lot of communities, if they could sue their governments and had standing, we would see a lot more action. And we want to change — our legislation changes the ability to not just sue them, but to actually collect damages, as well. I believe that, as an African American, I know the legal system, all the way from Brown v. Board of Education to incredible work done by great legal activists like Charles Hamilton Houston and others, that some — giving the legal power back to communities to defend themselves is utterly important. And that’s just one tool of the multiple tools that I want to do to make sure that we begin to have a country where people can trust the air that they’re breathing or the water that they’re drinking or the soil which they want to plant crops in.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Booker, I wanted to ask you about nuclear energy. You are a proud proponent of nuclear energy, have argued it’s necessary to wean us off the fossil fuel economy. But you have a lot of environmental activists who are scratching their heads at your support for nuclear energy, particularly around the issue of nuclear waste. Here in South Carolina, for example, there are 35 million gallons of nuclear waste being held at a nuclear reserve south of Aiken. Environmental activists have been fighting it for years. You’ve got Savannah River. And, of course, we’re talking about communities, primarily low-income communities of color, who are dealing with nuclear waste in their own backyards, from New Mexico to Yucca Mountain to right here. What is your answer to the fact that there is no solution in dealing with nuclear waste?

SEN. CORY BOOKER: Well, first of all, you’re a little bit mischaracterizing my views. I’m a realist that tells you right now the biggest existential threat to humanity is climate change. Fifty percent of our non-carbon-producing power right now is nuclear. And so, as some of my other opponents want to do is just get rid of it, it’s going to push us back to being more reliant on fossil fuels and make this, our ability to reach our climate goals, impossible. We saw what happened in Vermont when they cut down the Yankee plant there. Their carbon footprint expanded pretty significantly.

So, I look forward to phasing out nuclear waste and nuclear energy. But to do it right now, when we are in a race and have a 12-year race to meet our climate goals? The damage done to poor and vulnerable communities is significantly worse coming from climate change than it is the crisis of nuclear energy. If you want to weigh your poisons right now, the one that’s coming towards us like a barreling freight truck of climate change, the one that my community in Newark is feeling right now, because the temperature rises, asthma rates that are off the charts — and let me tell you something about asthma, as a guy that knows what it’s like in emergency rooms with black children dying at 10 times the rate than white children of asthma complications. So, for me, nuclear energy, I’m just — it’s just common sense to me right now.

AMY GOODMAN: To build new power plants?

SEN. CORY BOOKER: Well, let’s — let’s be clear. The nuclear energy of the plants we have now, designed in the '60s and the ’70s and the ’80s, is very different than the new modular nuclear energy plants that are being proposed. Now, those actually have a much — they can actually take spent fuel rods and re-engage them for usage. The frontiers of nuclear science is not something we should just shut down. We should continue to investigate: Is there going to be eventually a safe way to do this? So, I don't mind exploring the future. I’m one of these people that considers myself a futurist. Why? Because you have two choices in life: to let the future happen to you or to shape the future and make sure it happens in a way that’s just.

So, this, to me, is a very, very simple equation, is, I’ve got a 12-year problem to solve. And if anybody wants to get rid of nuclear energy, tell me how you are going to replace 50% of the non-carbon-producing power that we would have right now, because what you’re going to do, you’re going to send us back to coal and oil. And I refuse to go backwards in the cause of environmental justice.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your plan for renewables, for pushing forward solar and wind and other forms of sustainable energy?

SEN. CORY BOOKER: Well, this is what gets me frustrated about this conversation sometimes, is because you’ve got a bunch of people running for president who have been in public life for 20 years. Maybe the question is, is: What the heck have you been doing on these issues for the entire time?

So, you should know I have a record on these issues. Number one is, I do not believe that oil companies and coal companies should get tax breaks. It’s ridiculous that we are extending tax breaks in a way that companies like Chevron pay a net zero — in fact, they pay a negative tax rate right now because all the stuff we’re foisting upon them. And so, that’s number one, rolling back those tax breaks.

Number two is extending them to renewables. I fought not just for — when I was in the Senate, we were able to win a seven-year tax credit for — a renewable tax credit for wind and solar, which is really important, because you need some predictability if you’re going to be investing in those areas. But we wanted to see it for everything, from geothermal to battery life. We wanted to extend it for every type of renewable there is. Well, if I’m president, we’re going to make sure that we create a better incentive model for people to be doubling down in investments.

In addition to that, we’re going to create moonshots all around this country for science and research in the renewable space, which is critical because right now other countries are beating us in the race to solve these problems through innovation, and therefore they’re going to beat us in the race to create the new jobs that are being created. Right now there’s more jobs in solar than there are in coal. But we have many things that we could be doing. So, for me, this is all about making sure that we’re doing everything we can to incentivize investments, research, development, and to get to the point where I want to be, which is to have the electrification of our transportation sector by 2030 and then to be carbon neutral as a nation by 2045.

MUSTAFA ALI: Senator Booker, I want to build on what you were just talking about, because in our new clean economy that we are currently developing — and we know it’s going to grow over the years — when we look at those who are currently working in that space, we have some evolution to make sure that there are more folks of color in that space.


MUSTAFA ALI: When we look at the ownership of the businesses there, we also — I think it’s less than 2% of those businesses that are currently in the clean economy that are owned by folks of color. So, how do we — what would your administration do to make sure that those numbers increase?

SEN. CORY BOOKER: You know, when you’re in a car with Mustafa, you end up talking about a lot of things. Look, can we — let’s just be clear right now. We live in a country where there are savage racial disparities in every single corner of our lives. There are racial disparities in healthcare, racial disparities in education, in suspensions, in the criminal justice system. I can go through everything. And so, this, to me, is an issue of trust, because these issues are not right or left. They’re right or wrong. And the Democratic Party’s hands are not clean. I’ve sat where you’ve sat for so many presidential elections, living in an inner city, looking at people who we’re electing who are often part of the problem. Now, so, this, to me, is an issue of trust. Dealing with racial disparities, we need to make sure that the next president, this isn’t going to be a secondary issue, but that we understand that this is a real issue of trust.

Now, look, again, what have you been doing? I got to the United States Senate as the fourth-ever elected African American in the Senate’s history, popularly elected African American. And when I got there, I saw — don’t applaud me; applaud my ancestors, people who fought for me. My mom said, “You got there by the blood, sweat and tears of those who came before you.” And the key is not to be number one, two, three or four. The key is to make sure you’re not the last. This is why, South Carolina, please, please, please elect Jaime Harrison as the next senator.

And so — but let me tell you, it is not just enough to have a black senator. I got there, and I looked at the staffs. It was the least diverse place I had ever worked before in my life. And I looked at the Judiciary Committee staff, because I wanted to get on that committee, and I didn’t see one African-American staffer. You talk about Hamilton, being in the room when it happens. This was a committee making decisions about African-American lives and African-American bodies, and there wasn’t even an African American in the room. And so, what did I do? I went to Chuck Schumer, got a great young senator from Hawaii, Brian Schatz, and we just said, “This is outrageous.” Because most of the Democratic senators, guess how they get elected. With audiences that look a lot like this, African-American communities. And so, what we did is we said, “I only know one way of do things, is accountability, which is having standards, measures and consequences when things don’t happen.” And so, we asked Chuck Schumer, and he gladly did it, to have every Democratic senator publish your diversity statistics. How many women and minorities do you have in positions of power? And guess what’s happened since we’ve done that. The number of African Americans hired in the Senate has gone up.

And so, when you ask me about this, this is why I get — I get angry. Before I even get to that, let me just go with marijuana. This has been killing black communities. There was more marijuana arrests in 2017 than all the violent crime arrests in the country combined. And they’re not arresting everybody. People on college campuses — Stanford, I used to see people smoking pot all the time. No worries. It is disproportionately people of color. So now everybody’s moving to legalize marijuana. This is a big business. Hundreds of billions of dollars are going to be made in the business. And yet people, when they talk about legalization, they don’t go the next two or three steps. The first step should be — don’t talk to me about legalizing marijuana. I have the lead bill in the Senate to do it. But my bill is called the Marijuana Justice Act. You’ve got to also talk about expunging the records of all of those people. But let’s not stop there. Let’s not stop there. Now you want to make sure that in the communities that have been devastated by the marijuana — by marijuana enforcement, that people from those communities actually get a chance to have the licenses to sell marijuana legally. And that’s not happening right now. We’re about to shift into legalization of marijuana in state after state after state, and the people there are not — the people selling it are disproportionately not — are lacking the diversity that our nation does.

And so, to your point about the jobs of the future, I want to be clear. I had to have some very stern conversations with unions when I was a mayor of my town. We were building the first new hotel in 40 years. I had to go to my unions and say, “I know that you have people — systems of who gets on jobs when. But, I’m sorry, this is being built in an African-American community, and there needs to be African Americans, more diversity, in this union. And there needs to be apprenticeship programs for my kids.” And so, I just — I think Mustafa is 100% right. There is going to be a new energy job boom in this country, and we’ve got to make sure that those opportunities — because a lot of people want to talk to you about the wealth gap, the wealth gap, the wealth gap. Look, there are a lot of people in my community that want to be entrepreneurs, that want to be millionaires. And so, I always talk about the wealth gap, yeah, but what we really need to be talking about is the opportunity gap and to make sure that everybody has equal opportunity to start a business, to be innovators, to participate in the new job booms of the future and the new businesses of the future.

And this comes back to how I started, which is trust. If I am your president, a person who has spent my career working on these issues, I am going to make sure that these issues of racial equity are not on the side, that you will have a president, in me, someone who understands these issues intimately and makes sure that I am working every single day so that this nation is who it says it is — a nation of liberty, justice and opportunity for all.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Booker, Flint, Michigan, brought environmental justice to the national stage with the water crisis. Now, five years into that, people in Flint still don’t have clean water. And this year, people in your own community, your neighbors in Newark, New Jersey, where you once served as mayor and still represent them as senator, are also facing a crisis of lead contamination in the drinking water. Flint and Newark aren’t alone. Thousands of water system towns, villages and cities around the country — 

SEN. CORY BOOKER: Including right here in South Carolina.

AMY GOODMAN: — are facing contamination, right here in South Carolina. What specifically are you doing to address this national crisis? And what are you doing in Newark, your own community, with people in the throes of this water crisis?

SEN. CORY BOOKER: Yeah, so, look, leaders take responsibility and get things done. And so, when this crisis broke out in my city, I went right across the aisle in the Senate, where I’ve worked on building relationships, and passed a major piece of legislation. These are the kind of things that people don’t want to talk about, actually getting things done in Washington, that was — allowed states to shift resources, literally hundreds of millions, I think, in total, into funds that can get these lead pipes out of the water. This, to me, is — you said it: This is my family. These are my — this is my community. And my community isn’t alone. There are thousands of jurisdictions, as I said, right now where children have more than twice the blood lead levels of Flint, Michigan. And so, I’m taking action now as a United States senator. But if I’m president of the United States, enough. Lead service lines should not be in the ground in a 21st century America, period. And I will make sure that we have a fund to get every single lead service line out of the ground in cities all across America.

But we can’t stop there. We have — this is a true story, because I’m telling you — I’m admitting my inadequacies, because I got to the United States Senate as being the New Jersey senator — this is one of the things that led me on my environmental justice tour — and I was also on the Africa subcommittee as a foreign relations person. So I had this doctor, Dr. Peter Hotez, who came in to see me because I wanted to talk to him about neglected tropical diseases in African countries. And I’m flipping through his book as we’re talking about things I could do as a United States senator for the continent. And I’m flipping through books and seeing these maps of where the neglected tropical diseases are. And I almost fell out of my seat when I saw them in some states in the United States of America. And I said, “I didn’t know we had things like hookworm and the like.” And he goes, “Absolutely, in communities that are 100 to 200% of the poverty line.” The doctors don’t even think they exist in North America.

And I literally said, “I have to go see this with my own eyes.” And so I found myself in places in Alabama, in like Lowndes County, Alabama, where I stood there and saw communities that have — they can’t have septic, because the soil won’t allow it. And they have just straight pipes coming out of the people’s — back of people’s homes. I sat with families who talked to me about when it rains, about having all that stuff back up into their home. And so, when you start seeing what I’ve seen in this country, this is reflective of an impotency of empathy, that we could live in a nation where we don’t see what communities are suffering, who do not have access to clean water, who do not have access to proper sewage, who — in America, it should be a right of every citizen to have clean air, clean water and clean soil. And so, I have, in my environmental — in my climate plan, I’m one of the few people that has major pillars on environmental justice. And one of the things we’re going to do is make sure we have a community where everyone has access to clean air and clean water.

But it also means taking on sacred cows. And when I’m saying “sacred cows,” I’m almost literally talking about it, because the corporate industrial animal agriculture industry, we must begin to talk about what it’s doing to our country. You know, when I talked earlier about Duplin County, North Carolina, one of the reasons why groundwater is being contaminated is because you don’t have the heritage of our country, which is the way we used to raise pigs in farms. Now we have multinational corporations, like Smithfield, who have these contract farmers who live like sharecroppers. If you — we should have any empathy for them, too, because they find themselves in these contracts where they’re constantly living in massive debt. You see these massive things called CAFOs, concentrated animal feeding operations, that are all covered. And pigs produce 10 times the feces than human beings do. I sat and watched it going into these massive lagoons. In Duplin County, it’s historically black communities. And I stood there with activists as I watched the spray field spray the literal [bleep] out onto the fields. And then I watched it waff into — you know, like when you spray your lawn, some of it mists off the property and into black communities. I sat in packed rooms with African Americans who told me about respiratory diseases, cancers, what it feels like not to be able to open your windows in your home, run your air conditioning. You can’t put your clothing on the lines. This is happening from Iowa to North Carolina, and we are not conscious of this crisis in our country. I met with a Republican farmer in the Midwest — still remember, western Illinois — who told me, when the CAFOs came around his farm, he can no longer fish in his creek, no longer drink his well water.

And so, I’m just fed up. It’s very hard for me to sit comfortably in Newark, even with our lead water crisis, and know that there are Americans who are facing diseases, cancers, who have lost the value of their land that they’ve been on since slavery, and we are doing nothing as a society about it. That is so against our country. And so, as president of the United States, I have in my plan funds to do something about it. And I’m going to make sure, as your president, I fight and become the president that champions environmental justice in a way like you’ve never seen before.

MUSTAFA ALI: All right.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Booker, if you could talk about your personal decision to be a vegan, which really brings together the issue of the environment and personal health?

SEN. CORY BOOKER: Listen, my personal decision is to try every day to be a better — living the values in which I hold. And so, my veganism is a much better way to accord myself with my values. But I want to be clear with you that — because I don’t want this to be a holier-than-thou moment. I don’t know where the suit I’m wearing was made. And fast fashion is injustice. It is injustice. You know, these are vegan shoes, so I’m trying to be consistent with things. So, for me, all of us have to do a better job in living in accordance with what our values are. I don’t want to preach to people what our values are, but I know what corporate animal agriculture — not the farm heritage, the independent family farmers I’ve met all around this country, but massive corporate animal agriculture is destroying the environment. What’s happening to animals is something, if Americans — in fact, they’re passing these things called ag-gag laws, which I know you’ve heard of, where they’re trying to block Americans from actually knowing what’s happening to animals. That’s why those CAFOs are usually covered, so you can’t see in and the misery and the suffering going on with animals.

And so, for me, from everything from my health — the leading cause of death for black men is preventable diseases. As Ron Finley, this great — he has a TED Talk, black man in South-Central Los Angeles. He has this great TED Talk — you should watch it — where he says, “In South-Central, we got drive-bys and drive-thrus, and the drive-thrus are killing more people than the drive-bys.” And so, I’m trying to do my best to live my values. I fail every day, but I want to get better and better and better, to be more conscious about the decisions I’m making. And in a capitalist society, you vote every day with your dollars. And so, my veganism is something I’m happy to talk about, and about the reasons why. But I want to tell you this — Martin Luther King said it more eloquently than I could ever say it. He goes, “I can pass — I can’t pass laws to make you love me, but I can pass laws to stop you from lynching me.” I can’t pass laws to change your heart, but I can pass laws to restrain the heartless. And so, I may not — I may not want to force my dietary habits on everybody here. But if I’m your president, I’m going to stop us subsidizing through our ag bills the corporate animal agriculture that ultimately is hurting our country. And I haven’t heard another presidential candidate that wants to talk about these issues.

Animal agriculture right now is the way — the large corporate animal agriculture is driving so much of the problems with climate change. The number-one reason for deforestation, rainforest deforestation, is grazing lands for the larger and larger consumption of meat. Scientists say that we would need four planet Earths if the rest of the planet ate the standard American diet. And by the way, China is moving towards the standard American diet. More people are eating like we’re eating. And so, we have to start talking about a free market, not the subsidization of corporations, whether it’s oil companies or folks that are doing it.

Now, if I have more sway over the ag bill, God, we’re going to let farmers lead us out of this. But we’re going to be doing things like incentivizing cover crops and no-till farming, things that pull carbon out of the air. We’re going to incentivize reforestation. I have a plan to plant 100 million trees in urban areas, which will cool them down, pull more carbon out of the air. We need to start using our incentives, our taxpayer dollars, to incentivize the right behavior and stop the human suffering that’s going on as a result of a lot of the things we’re spending — we’re doing with — subsidizing with our taxpayer dollars.

AMY GOODMAN: Democratic presidential candidate Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, speaking last Friday the first-ever Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice. We held it at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. I co-moderated the forum with former EPA official Mustafa Ali. Visit democracynow.org to watch the full forum, including Senator Elizabeth Warren talking about environmental justice, shutting down pipelines, capitalism and billionaires, as well as her response to whether the presidential primary season should begin in two of the whitest states, Iowa and New Hampshire. Other candidates at the forum: Tom Steyer, Marianne Williamson, John Delaney and Joe Sestak.

Coming up, is Texas about to execute an innocent man? Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Contra Todo” — that’s “Against Everything” — by the Puerto Rican musician iLe, performing at our Democracy Now! studios. To see our full interview with her and her performance, go to democracynow.org.

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