Environmental Justice for All: Protecting Communities Fairly and Fully

The election of Obama as President provides a transformational opportunity to make good on the promise for an America where every person, regardless of their race or income, enjoys the right to a healthy environment.

Over the past 8 years we've seen unprecedented attacks on our basic environmental protections.  In the environmental justice context, we saw an EPA that attempted to redefine environmental justice as something for all people, regardless of race or income.  You can't take race and income out of environmental justice.  At its soul, environmental justice seeks to address the statistical fact that people who live, work, and play in America's most polluted environments are most commonly people of color and the poor.

Currently, more than nine million people are estimated to live in host neighborhoods within two miles of one of 413 hazardous waste facilities nationwide.  According to the environmental justice report Toxic Waste and Race at 20, the proportion of people of color in these host neighborhoods is almost twice that of the proportion of people of color living in non-host neighborhoods, and host neighborhoods are typically economically depressed, with poverty rates 1.5 times that of non-host communities. By permitting toxic and hazardous facilities to operate in close proximity to people of color and poor communities, the U.S. government prioritizes the economic interests of polluting industries above the protection of the basic rights to health, racial equality, and safety of one's home.

Today's Green Group Transition report follows the lead of local communities around the country by delivering the following message to the White House:

  • Reaffirm environmental justice policies that have been weakened or abandoned, including EPA's failure to implement its environmental justice obligations and it decision to improperly focus EPA's commitments away from low-income communities and communities of color.
  • Create visionary new safeguards to protect vulnerable and overburdened communities from toxic pollution and proactively assist in the development of healthy and sustainable communities.

President-elect Obama not only has a chance to restore the damage done over the past 8 years, but also the opportunity to forge a just society which fosters a healthy and sustainable quality of life for all communities. 

The Green Group Transition report outlines specific legislative and policy steps, advocated by environmental justice communities around the country, that President-elect Obama should support to significantly move forward the environmental justice agenda.

President-elect Obama should support the passage of legislation that:

  1. Requires a minimum safe distance between residential communities and hazardous, toxic, polluting facilities.  Specifically, the legislation should include credible disaster planning (including release control and containment, decontamination and evacuation plans) for areas with high concentrations of industrial facilities.
  2. Enacts clean production requirements. Achieving clean production requires continuous application of precaution, prevention, democracy, and producer responsibility for impacts caused by production processes and products.  Legislation to promote clean production should include workforce development training including technical training in hazardous materials abatement, environmental remediation, construction and in "green-related" careers.
  3. Requires the consideration of multiple exposures.  Amend existing federal permitting statutes such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act to require permitting agencies to consider and take into account disproportionate pollution burdens on human health from multiple, cumulative, and synergistic impacts of toxic chemicals for people of color and the poor.
  4. Enacts the Environmental Justice Act and Environment Justice Renewal Act.  Support these bills that codify Executive Order 12,898 on Environmental Justice and require EPA to report to Congress on its progress in implementing the recommendations of the OIG and GAO, and to restore private right of action under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to allow communities harmed by disproportionate treatment in federally funded programs to seek redress.
  5. Ensures any climate change legislation achieves Climate Justice.  Support climate legislation that will ensure emissions reductions and accompanying health benefits are fairly distributed and occur in urban areas and that reduce emissions of fine particulate matter, its gaseous precursors, and other toxic pollutants at the same time that emissions of carbon dioxide are being reduced.  Legislation should deploy renewable energy sources and conservation techniques extensively in urban areas to reduce emissions of and to help economically revitalize urban areas. Formulate climate change adaptation and disaster mitigation strategies designed specifically for people of color and low income urban residents.

President-elect Obama should also adopt policies that:

  1. Fully implement the requirements of Executive Order 12,898.  Since 1993, the Executive Order has made a commitment to the nation's most vulnerable communities and promote healthy communities. Unfortunately, over the past 8 years, the obligations have been redefined and abandoned, in favor of an approach that fails to recognize that low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately burdened by toxic pollution. This Administration needs to restore the nation's commitment to environmental justice by fully implement the requirements of Executive Order and implementing the  recommendations of the EPA OIG and GAO to meet requirements of the Order.
  2. Vigorously investigate and enforce Title VI claims.  Despite rampant evidence of environmental discrimination, the EPA has rejected, on either jurisdictional grounds, all but one of the hundreds of Title VI claims submitted to the agency, and that one claim was rejected.  The new administration must reverse this course by complying with EPA Title VI implementing regulations governing the review and investigation of civil rights complaints. 
  3. Ensure compliance with human rights treaties.  As a party to international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), among other others, the United States has the obligation to fully respect and implement treaty obligations.  As an executive agency, the EPA should take lead responsibility to instill awareness within the agency of the United States' international human rights obligations that are relevant to its function; review environmental laws, regulations, and policies for their conformity with ICCPR, CERD, and other human rights treaties to which the United States is a party; and respond to complaints of human rights violations that fall within its area of responsibility.

*I helped write the Environmental Justice section of the Green Group Transition paper, which was submitted to President-elect Obama's transistion team today.