EPA Should Make Environmental Justice Job One

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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)

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