Oct. 10, 2006 – Environmentalists, civil rights advocates and even federal auditors say the US government is ignoring its duty to protect low-income people and people of color from harmful pollution in their communities.
Last month, the Environmental Protection Agencyâ€™s Office of the Inspector General found the Agency does not know if its policies and programs are negatively affecting poor people because it has not conducted proper "environmental justice" reviews.
"The term of â€˜environmental justiceâ€™ is kind of a cleaned-up term," said Felicia Eaves, campaign organizer with the grassroots group Womenâ€™s Voices for the Earth. "[The term] actually started out as â€˜environmental racism.â€™"
The extent of environmental inequality in the United States was first documented in a landmark 1987 study by United Church of Christâ€™s Commission for Racial Justice, which found that across the country, toxic waste was more likely to be found in communities of color.
Numerous other studies since then show similar findings. A 2000 study by the Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas-Dallas found that almost half of the nearly 2 million federally-subsidized apartments for low-income people were within about a mile of factories releasing toxic emissions.
In 2001, the Latino Issues Forum found that the majority of new power plants being considered by the California Energy Commission were planned for neighborhoods where the majority population was black or Latino. That same year, civil rights and environmental groups released "Air of Injustice," a report that found 68 percent of blacks live within 30 miles of coal-fired power plants, compared to 56 percent of whites.
According to the EPAâ€™s Office of Inspector General, 60 percent of program and regional office directors were not conducting environmental justice reviews at all.
More recently, the Associated Press conducted an analysis of government data for every neighborhood counted in the 2000 census. The 2005 AP report found that blacks are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in areas most at health risk from industrial air pollution.
The EPA itself issued a report in 1992 finding that "racial minority and low-income populations experience higher than average exposures to selected air pollutants, hazardous waste facilities, contaminated fish and agricultural pesticides in the workplace."
The federal government prioritized the issue more than a decade ago, when President Bill Clinton issued a 1994 executive order requiring the EPA to convene a working group of 17 federal agencies to review how their programs affect low-income populations and communities of color.
But groups and federal auditors have been questioning the working groupâ€™s progress ever since.
According to the EPAâ€™s Office of Inspector General, 60 percent of program and regional office directors were not conducting environmental justice reviews at all. The September 18 report also found that 87 percent of offices responding to the EPAâ€™s survey said Agency management had not asked them to conduct environmental justice reviews on the Agencyâ€™s programs, policies and activities.
"Many of us have been working on this issue for years and years and years and years, and we knew that EPA was not doing their job."
This is not the first time the inspector general found the EPA was not fulfilling the executive order. In a 75-page report released in March 2004, the inspector general stated that EPA had not fully implemented the 1994 order and had not "consistently integrated environmental justice into its day-to-day operations."
"Itâ€™s about time," Eaves told The NewStandard, in reference to the inspector generalâ€™s new report. "Many of us have been working on this issue for years and years and years and years, and we knew that EPA was not doing their job."
The inspector generalâ€™s report noted that while only 10 out of 23 offices surveyed responded, that number was "high for a voluntary survey." The report did not look at other federal agenciesâ€™ environmental justice reviews.
In its response to the inspector general, the EPA admitted that it has not conducted environmental justice reviews. It said it has instead integrated "environmental justice considerations into its strategic plan."
But that plan, a draft of which was released in June 2005, was slammed by dozens of groups and lawmakers. It proposed to eliminate references to race and class as an environmental justice consideration.
After the backlash, EPA administrator Stephen Johnson issued a memo in November 2005 defending EPAâ€™s commitment to environmental justice.
"In recognizing that minority and/or low-income communities frequently may be exposed disproportionately to environmental harms and risks, EPA works to protect these and other burdened communities from adverse human health and environmental effects of its programs," wrote Johnson.
"I think [that] is the crux of environmental justice. Where we can get away with doing the least is where these facilities end up, and thatâ€™s not the way we should be thinking about things."
Johnson also announced that environmental justice concerns would be folded into the agencyâ€™s general 2006-2011 strategic plan â€“ as opposed to a specific environmental justice plan â€“ a 179-page document released late last month outlining the agencyâ€™s goals over the next five years.
In the new plan, EPA states it is establishing "measurable environmental justice commitments" for eight areas, including reducing asthma attacks, reducing exposure to air toxics and reducing elevated blood lead levels. The Agency states it also will increase compliance with regulations, revitalize contaminated lands and ensure that fish are safe to eat and water is safe to drink.
The EPA does have an Office of Environmental Justice, but a TNS review of its website yielded numerous broken links and outdated information. According to the site, the Agencyâ€™s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council has only met 19 times since it was convened in 1993, the last of which was in New Orleans in 2004.
The Agency also told the inspector general that it has "significantly enhanced its online environmental justice mapping and assessment capabilities, which should lead to improved accountability, efficiency, and, most importantly, improved conditions in environmentally burdened communities."
But Caroline Farrell, acting executive director of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, said a new way of addressing issues of race, poverty and pollution is necessary.
"Part of the hope is that either we be more equitable in where we put things, or we be more rigorous and demand that we look at alternative ways of doing things that are less polluting," she said. "If we werenâ€™t always just trying to find whatâ€™s the cheapest and most convenient, but whatâ€™s the best way â€¦ and that I think is the crux of environmental justice. Where we can get away with doing the least is where these facilities end up, and thatâ€™s not the way we should be thinking about things."