The inspector generalâ€™s report coincides with the week-long Environmental Justice for All bus tour, which wrapped up earlier this month in Washington, DC. A coalition of about 70 environmental, public health and human rights groups sponsored the tour, which traveled throughout the nation to bring attention to the disproportionate amount of pollution endured by low-income communities of color.
"I donâ€™t know that everyone understands the issue of environmental racism and thatâ€™s why we wanted to do this tour," said Felicia Eaves, who works with Womenâ€™s Voices for the Earth and the National Black Environmental Justice Network. "I think people kind of understood it after Katrina happened when they began to see the Ninth Ward, for example, which was flooded out and was predominately a black neighborhood, and is low-income and was not very well attended to even before Katrina hit."
Caroline Farrell, acting executive director of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, who also participated in the tour, said many of the people affected by polluting industries are Latino farm workers, who face public health hazards both at work and at home. When the tour went through the San Joaquin Valley, California, Rey Leon, policy analyst with Latino Issues Forum, described a typical sight in the area: a dairy on one side, a freeway on the other.
"If itâ€™s not pesticides, itâ€™s a dump," said Leon in a video of the event on the campaignâ€™s website. "It was obvious government and industry are not respecting Latinos, they are not respecting people of color, theyâ€™re not respecting poor people because they continue to build contaminated companiesâ€¦ next door without effectively incorporating community in the process to make sure that these companies arenâ€™t going to harm us."
At another tour stop in Syracuse, New York, resident Vernell Bentley described how she was evicted in 2004 from her predominantly black neighborhood to make room for a new sewage treatment plant.
"All of sudden, we had to uproot," Bentley told bus tour participants. "If it had been a white neighborhood, it wouldnâ€™t have been there. They would have put it somewhere else. But just because weâ€™re black, they put it in our front yard and we want to do something about it."
Syracuse residents fought the sewage treatment plant for several years, developing a proposal for an alternative "underground" facility that would have less of an impact on the neighborhood. They convinced the EPA to investigate the issue as an environmental justice claim under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prevents discrimination of programs that receive federal funding.
The EPA dismissed the case as having "no adverse impact,"and today construction on the facility continues. But according to the Partnership for Onondaga Creek, the residential group that filed the case, the EPAâ€™s investigation did not include any on-site research or interviews with residents or the groupâ€™s lawyer.
Farrell, an attorney, said environmental justice claims are difficult to win because plaintiffs need to prove intentional discrimination, not just that discrimination was the unintended result of decision-making or actions.
Other stops on the Environmental Justice for All tour included Hartford, Connecticut; Mossville, Louisiana; Dixon, Tennessee; and Port Arthur, Texas.