Will Environmental Justice Finally Get Its Due?

If President-Elect Barack Obama's recent cabinet choices are any indication, the decades-old environmental justice movement may finally see many of its top policy goals fulfilled. The Obama administration is poised to finally deliver on White House promises made in the early 1990s to protect minorities from toxic waste, and with the addition of an Office of Urban Policy, it may go even further toward correcting historical racial disparities when it comes to environmental hazards.

On Feb. 11, 1994, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order #12898, the Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations. It was a huge milestone for the environmental justice movement, which began in the early 1980s when multi-racial coalitions of activists fought against pollution and dumpings near African-American communities in Warren County, North Carolina, and Dickson County, Tennessee. In 1987, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice produced a groundbreaking study, "Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States," that showed race, more so than class or wealth, was the most significant variable when examining areas where toxic waste sites were located. The blacker or more Hispanic the neighborhood, the more likely it is that a hazardous waste facility is close by.

By the time Clinton signed the executive order, there were numerous studies showing that air and water pollution were heavily concentrated in minority communities. A growing coalition of advocates was pushing for environmental-justice reforms. The executive order mandated that every federal agency "make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionally high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies and activities on minority populations and low-income populations." The order also stressed public participation in setting environmental and health policy, improving research and data collection on minority and low-income populations, and the creation of an Interagency Working Group chaired by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that would coordinate implementation and facilitate public meetings.

It's noteworthy that "public participation" and "public meetings" are terms mentioned often in the draft. Carol Browner, then head of the EPA, said in announcing the order, "We will develop strategies to ensure that low-income and minority communities have access to information about their environment – and that have an opportunity to participate in shaping government policies that affect their health and their environment." One way to do that, Browner said, would be "by increasing public participation in Superfund decision-making."

But Clinton never fully implemented the order, and Bush ignored, if not fought against it. Meanwhile, the environmental problems persisted. In 2005, the Associated Press released a report, based on EPA data, that said African Americans were almost 80 percent more likely than white Americans to live in communities in proximity to the most hazardous industrial pollution sites.

Obama's choice to appoint Browner as his assistant for Energy and Climate Change is a sign that these disparities will finally possibly get addressed. His subsequent picks for his environmental team all but assure that they will. Nancy Sutley, Obama's pick for White House Council on Environmental Quality, worked for California's EPA and, under Governor Gray Davis, drafted an environmental-justice policy to protect poor and minority communities from pollution from development. And Obama's choice for head of the EPA, Lisa Jackson, who hails from New Orleans and has family who suffered from Katrina, has environmental justice running through her blood. She served 16 years in the federal EPA before taking helm of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection in 2006.

And it's not just his environmental policy appointees who are attuned to these issues. Housing and Urban Development pick Shaun Donovan is a long-time supporter of affordable housing. Office of Urban Policy appointee Adolfo Carrion has been a champion of not just affordable but energy-efficient, green-quality sustainable housing for low-income people. Obama's domestic policy czar, Melody Barnes, is a progressive who once was a director for the Equal Employment Opportunity Center and is a strong proponent of income equity. And his Labor Secretary nominee, Hilda Solis, is focused on green jobs as salvation for America's economy. Add it all up, and what you have is essentially an environmental-justice army.

“There is good reason to be optimistic about environmental justice being placed back on the national radar with Obama’s selection to EPA,” says Dr. Robert Bullard, the “father of environmental justice," and founder of the Environmental Justice Resource Center in Atlanta. He gave the same praise to Obama’s selections for Department of Energy (Stephen Chu), Sutley, and Browner (adding that the movement made important strides when Browner was head of the EPA).

“[Jackson] gave us a lot of access,” says Dr. Nicky Sheats, statewide coordinator of the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance and director of the Center for Urban Environment at the John S. Watson Institute for Public Policy in Trenton. “We feel here that she is concerned about environmental justice and to us it sends a signal that it would get a higher priority than it has already.”

Traditional environmental groups have similarly praised Obama's appointees. Sierra Club lobbyist Jeff Tittle says that Jackson’s appointment, if confirmed, will “have a profound effect because for the first time you have an EPA commissioner who really understands environmental and justice issues.” Environment New Jersey, comprised of citizen activists, said in a statement that Jackson “represents a 180 degree turnaround for the United States on the environment.” Amy Goldsmith, the New Jersey director of Clean Water Action said by statement Jackson has “the right combination of smarts, savvy, good government and pragmatism to advance strong science-based environmental policy.” Goldsmith adds, “While we may not have agreed with Jackson on everything, those disagreements have mostly been about strategy, not substance.”

Jackson’s strategy has made her the “controversial” pick of the group. After Jackson was announced, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility had a public tantrum, calling her New Jersey record “disastrous.” Among their complaints are Superfund sites needing cleanup (for which New Jersey leads the nation) and the infamous Kiddie Kollege incident, in which a daycare center was allowed to open in a former thermometer factory with high traces of mercury still evident. But both cases were problems long before Jackson took helm of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. Jackson tells the Prospect, “I think it is unfair that I suddenly have been made responsible for sites that have been on the list for cleanup for so long.”

Critics have also taken issue with her willingness to work with developers and business, but from the perspective of environmental justice advocates, Jackson was simply ensuring polluters pay for clean-up. As the African American Environmentalist Association blogged recently, “There is nothing wrong with collaborating with industry groups for considering clean up strategies.”

But despite minor controversies over Jackson, both the environmental and environmental-justice movements have good reason to be optimistic. Activists are hopeful that Clinton's long-dormant executive order will finally be codified into law. If ever there was a team to do it, this is it.

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