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.