EPA makes environmental justice high priority, but key settlement disappoints advocates
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama said his administration would put an emphasis on "environmental justice” -- the notion that lower-income Americans and ethnic and racial minorities should not suffer disproportionately from environmental hazards.
The federal government's interest in environmental justice dates back to February 1994, when President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 12898, "Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations."
In his promise, Obama cited four specific goals. We'll take each in turn.
• Strengthen the Environmental Protection Agency Office of Environmental Justice. Obama upgraded the status of the top environmental-justice official when he appointed Lisa Garcia to oversee the agency's environmental justice efforts. Garcia, who remains in her position, reports directly to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, rather than one of the EPA administrator's subordinates, as was the case previously.
"It's significant, because a senior person like Lisa Garcia can cross-coordinate across all offices,” said Albert Y. Huang, a senior attorney for environmental justice with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
The administration also released in September 2011 a roadmap for environmental justice called "Plan EJ 2014.” The plan is intended to be the "overarching strategy for advancing environmental justice” in the coming years.
While Huang said the plan doesn't necessarily go into great detail, it did "kick off processes throughout the agencies.”
Juan Parras, director of the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, told the environmental publication Greenwire that while EPA has always listened to communities' concerns, the agency actually sometimes takes their advice under Obama. "I think we at least feel confident that if somebody at EPA is concerned about communities, it's not just rhetoric and talk," Parras told Greenwire. "They are actually doing something to help us."
• Expand the Environmental Justice Small Grants Program. The grants program, which began in 1994, has awarded a cumulative $23 million to more than 1,253 community-based organizations to enable "overburdened and vulnerable communities” to "address environmental challenges.”
We couldn't find year-by-year data on grant money awarded, but we did locate overall funding for the environmental justice at EPA. Here are the totals:
Fiscal year 2009: $5.46 million
Fiscal year 2010: $7.09 million
Fiscal year 2011: $8.42 million
Fiscal year 2012: $6.85 million
Fiscal year 2013 (request): $7.16 million
While funding fell from fiscal 2011 to fiscal 2012, the fiscal 2012 level still exceeded the amount Obama inherited by about 25 percent, a healthy increase over four years.
• Ensure that environmental health issues in the wake of man-made or terrorist disasters are promptly addressed. This one is hard to assess beyond anecdotal testimony. Huang compared the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. "I was there for both, and the approaches were completely different in transparency, communication and engagement,” he said. "Katrina was much more adversarial.”
• Provide low-income communities the legal ability to challenge policies. Low-income communities had the power to petition EPA on environmental grounds before Obama took office. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibit recipients of federal money from discriminating on basis of race, color or national origin, either intentionally or by neutral policies that end up with discriminatory results. Federal regulations allow complaints alleging discrimination to be filed with the appropriate federal agency.
However, at EPA, many of these complaints have historically languished.
Under Obama, EPA asked Deloitte Consulting LLP, an outside firm, to evaluate its record. The report, released in March 2011, was unsparing in its criticism.
EPA "has not adequately adjudicated Title VI complaints,” the report said. "Only 6 percent of the 247 Title VI complaints have been accepted or dismissed within the Agency 20-day time limit,” while the agency's "backlog of Title VI cases stretches back to 2001. At the time of this report's publication, there were numerous cases that have been awaiting action for up to four years. Two cases have been in the queue for more than eight years.”
As one news report noted, the study found that the EPA's office lacks "the rudiments of organizational infrastructure," such as established procedures, defined staff duties or the ability to track cases. Its handling of employee complaints "is known for poor investigative quality and a lack of responsiveness."
But if the Obama-era EPA has been strikingly open about its past failures, environmentalists say the agency has had a mixed record substantively on Title VI cases.
In one closely watched case, Angelita C. v. California Department of Pesticide Regulation, the EPA found a "prima facie” violation of Title VI that Latino schoolchildren had been exposed to unhealthy levels of the the toxic fumigant methyl bromide whereas the fumigant was not used at majority white schools.
The agency's decision was "historic,” Huang said, but the settlement of the case was comparatively weak -- essentially continued monitoring.
Allison Chin, president of the Sierra Club, called the settlement "a major blow to the cause of environmental justice” in a blog post. "EPA failed to refer the case to the Justice Department and instead concluded a backroom deal that provides no relief to the families and requires little more than monitoring.”
Huang sees mixed progress on fulfilling Obama's promise. "EPA should be given credit for struggling to make environmental justice real,” he said, "but there's a long road ahead.”
We rate this promise a Compromise.
Environmental Protection Agency, "Title VI and Environmental Justice at EPA," accessed Nov. 29, 2012
Environmental Protection Agency, "Plan EJ 2014,” September 2011
Environmental Protection Agency, "Historical Planning, Budget, and Results Reports,” accessed Nov. 29, 2012
Deloitte Consulting LLP, "Final Report: Evaluation of the EPA Office of Civil Rights," March 21, 2011
Environmental Protection Agency, index page for Environmental Justice Small Grants program, accessed Nov. 29, 2012
Environmental Protection Agency, letter to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation re Title VI Complaint 16R-99-R9, April 22, 2011
Greenwire, "EPA wears many hats in sprawling initiative,” April 13, 2011
Environment News Service, "Critical Report Slams EPA's Office of Civil Rights," April 5, 2011
Environmental Protection Agency, fact sheet on Angelita C. v. California Department of Pesticide Regulation, accessed Nov. 29, 2012
Allison Chin, blog post on Angelita C. v. California Department of Pesticide Regulation, Sept. 9, 2011
Interview with Albert Y. Huang, senior attorney for environmental justice with the Natural Resources Defense Council, Nov. 29, 2012
So far, so good on environmental justice programs
On the campaign trail, Barack Obama promised to improve environmental justice programs meant to help lower-income people who can be more susceptible to the consequences of natural disasters, toxic contamination and other environmental threats.
We asked the White House how Obama was doing on this front, and we learned he's made some progress.
First, Obama promised to strengthen the Environmental Protection Agency's Environmental Justice Small Grants Program, which helps nonprofits address local environmental problems. Indeed, EPA has increased funding for this program to the tune of $1 million, an increase of $200,000 since the last budget cycle, according to the White House. Overall, funding for environmental justice programs have been increased by $3.5 million under the new administration.
Over the last year, EPA has been handing out grants to improve environmental justice in downtrodden communities. For instance, in March, it announced $800,000 for projects ranging from an asbestos education project in Chicago to energy-efficiency workshops for Spanish-speaking communities in Kansas. In November, the EPA announced an additional round of grants totaling $1 million.
The administration has taken some symbolic steps to improve the Office of Environmental Justice as well. For the first time ever, it appointed two senior advisers for environmental justice and civil rights; it convened the first-ever teleconference to solicit comments on environmental justice issues; and EPA Secretary Lisa Jackson issued a memo requesting that the potential effects of new regulation or policy on minority and low-income communities be included in the rulemaking process.
All this adds up to some impressive action in Obama's first year, said Al Huang, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council specializing on environmental justice issues. He's particularly impressed with how quickly EPA was to quash Bush-era rulemaking that could have harmed low-income communities, including an effort on industry-wide toxic substance reporting requirements.
"They've done a good job of stopping bad things from the previous administration," Huang said. "As far as moving new things, the jury's still out."
Whether Obama comes through on other parts of his promise, such as giving low-income communities greater ability to challenge policies and processes that affect their environmental health, remains to be seen, Huang said.
So, the administration has made some headway on this promise, but we'd like to see where it goes. For now, we give this one an In the Works.
The Environmental Protection Agency, Small Grants Program , accessed Dec. 3, 2009
The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA Awards $800,000 in Environmental Justice Grants to Communities in 28 States , accessed Dec. 16, 2009
The Environmental Protection Agency,
EPA Soliciting Applications for Environmental Justice Grant Funding
accessed Dec. 21, 2009
Interview, Al Huang, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Dec. 16, 2009