Backyard Talk

EPA Should Make Environmental Justice Job One

By Laura Barrett

Re-posted from ROOFLINES–the Shelterforce blog

The EPA is making news lately.  Unfortunately, it’s not for protecting the environment or victims of pollution. Activist groups, low income residents of communities plagued by toxins, and journalists are all taking the EPA to task because they charge that through inaction, it is aiding environmental racism.

In July, Earthjustice and five other groups sued the EPA for its failure to investigate civil rights complaints. These non-profits say that the EPA is letting states “off the hook” when they grant permits to companies that pollute in communities of color. “It is unacceptable that the racial composition of a community continues to be a critical factor in predicting exposure to toxic contamination,” Earthjustice attorney Marianne Engelman Lado said. “Justice has been delayed for too long. While EPA sits on these complaints, facilities continue to pollute and communities living in proximity to these facilities are deprived of their rights.”

In August, six other organizations filed an “intent to sue” against the EPA for failing to update its regulations on mining waste. (They are the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, Environmental Integrity Project, Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthworks, Responsible Drilling Alliance, San Juan Citizens Alliance, and West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization.)

The groups are calling on the EPA to update its mining waste disposal rules, which they say should have been revised more than a quarter century ago. The activists believe that an influx of mining wastes from fracking has greatly exacerbated environmental problems.

“These are not your mom and pop wells of the 1980s, and their waste can no longer be ignored and listed as being non-hazardous,” said Teresa Mills of CHEJ’s Ohio field office. “For the agency to keep calling millions of gallons/tons of hazardous material as non-toxic is mind-boggling. The free ride for the oil and gas industry must end now.”

Over the last few months the Center for Public Integrity has released an investigative series on the EPA’s record on civil rights complaints. The Center found that EPA officials rejected 95 percent of the hundreds of civil rights complaints it has received. Keep in mind this is the EPA office specifically charged with investigating complaints of discrimination filed against state and local agencies that get EPA funds and, when seeing evidence of injustice, making things right. It’s a shocking dereliction of duty. And it’s one that leaves low income communities of color, rural people and indigenous people–often the victim of the most egregious polluters–increasingly vulnerable.

In September, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights announced that it will more aggressively evaluate recipients of EPA funding to ensure their compliance with federal civil-rights laws. A draft Strategic Plan was released recently. The five-year plan commits the agency for the first time to conduct targeted compliance reviews. The plan seems to be a response to the Center for Public Integrity’s investigative series.

What can ordinary people do to recall the Office of Civil Rights to its mission? The Center for Health, Environment and Justice is circulating an online petition targeting EPA administrator Gina McCarthy. More than one thousand people have already signed. It’s one way to express some outrage and insist that Black Lives that are downwind of pollution Matter.

(Photo credit: Sheila, via flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Backyard Talk

The Clean Air Act has Potential for at Risk Populations

On August 3rd , 2015, president Obama and the EPA announced the finalization of the Clean Power Plan, which sets a first ever national limit on carbon pollution emitted by the electric power sector. Before then, electric plants, which contribute 31 percent total carbon emissions in the U.S., had the freedom to emit as much pollution as they pleased. Not only does the plan aim to help the United States step down from being one of the largest contributors to climate change, it allows at risk communities to step up and interact with the state government to change polluted air conditions.

It’s not uncommon to hear of low-income minorities living in higher polluted conditions compared to more affluent white neighborhoods. It is a problem long known where a 20 yearlong study from 1987 to 2007 by the United Church of Christ found that 56 percent and 30 percent of people of color and low socioeconomic live in commercially hazardous host neighborhoods (i.e. where these facilities and neighborhoods are very close, overlapping one another within a 3 kilometer area) and non-host neighborhoods, respectively. To show how high the disparages are, a study published by the University of Minnesota found that nationally, minorities are on average exposed to 38 percent higher levels of NO2, a contributor to asthma and heart attacks, than white communities. With increased exposure to harmful chemicals chances of developing health problems, such as asthma, cardiovascular disease, and lung disease increases as well.

The Clean Power Plan has the potential to significantly reduce these harmful emissions across the nation and possibly give communities who are at most risk of facing air pollution the much needed attention they deserve. The CPP requires States to demonstrate how they involved communities in decisions while creating a plan to meet CO2 emission standards, which can make it easier for some people to provide input on what strategies may benefit or harm their neighborhoods. With the CPP in full effect, the plan claims asthma in children is expected to be slashed by as much as 70 percent or 90,000 less attacks, prevent 3,600 premature deaths, and eliminate CO2 emissions by 32 percent by 2030.

The CPP prioritizes early investment in energy efficient projects in low income communities. The plan hopes this will speed up the process in switching to greener energy sources, thereby cutting carbon emissions quicker. When states submit their plans, they are required to show how they are engaged with the vulnerable communities. States are given flexibility when choosing a plan; one such option would be to increase efficiency at power plants, generating more power with less pollution. Adopting natural gas generation over coal could be another route to cleaner air, where carbon emissions are as half as much versus coal. The cleanest choice, however, is increasing electricity that originated from greener sources such as wind or solar power, in which there are virtually no carbon emissions.

The Clean Power Plan was drafted with ideas and comments from 4 million people concerned about the air. The plan has the potential to progress further by incorporating involvement from communities nationwide and could provide Americans with clean energy and clean air for the future. To learn more about the exciting changes taking place, click on this link for a fact sheet published by the White House.