The National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) had its bi-yearly face-to-face meeting in Arlington, VA this past July. Meeting at the EPA Potomac Yard Conference Center on July 24 & 25, the conference was a public forum where council members as well as other experts and community leaders brought up pressing environmental justice (EJ) issues for review by the council. In addition, workgroups within the council and even the EPA presented reports on their activities involving EJ issues.
NEJAC takes on issues that really matter to environmental justice communities. One of the issues discussed during the meeting was the use of computer softwares for EJ screening. This entails the use of computer programs to aid in the determination of what areas need help. However, it was made clear from the proponents of this technology that it would not present clear-cut distinctions between what was considered an “EJ community “ and what was not. The effectiveness of these softwares to analyze the EJ burden within a community is still questionable at best because EJ factors are examined individually and independently of each other. This means that the cumulative effect of multiple exposures is not acknowledged. For this reason, the picture they create is still not representative of the real EJ burden of a particular community.
Another pressing issue brought up to the NEJAC was the safety of nail salon workers. Many nail salon workers are immigrants who have limited English proficiency and earn small salaries. These workers are exposed to the chemicals in hair and nail products, 89% of which are have not been tested to assess their health effects. In addition to this, several products that claim to be formaldehyde-free or phthalate-free contain significant quantities of these chemicals. The NEJAC was asked to urge the EPA to address this issue in some way in the near future.
A major highlight of the Meeting was a report on EPA’s stance on fracking as an EJ issue. EPA emphasized their stance on exploiting the country’s natural gas reserves responsibly, which is rhetoric and not real action. The presentation explained that fracking wells that do not use diesel fuels as their injection fluids are exempt from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), but did little to justify this exclusion . Furthermore, the EPA representative in charge of giving the report seemed not knowledgeable on the subject and ill equipped to deal with questions because she answered most of them vaguely and by referring those who asked the questions to other people within the EPA.
All in all, that the NEJAC meeting handled topics of great importance to the EJ communities around the US is undisputed. Whether the EPA listens to what the council has t say is still up in the air.
Copies of the documents made available at the meeting can be obtained at http://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/nejac/
By Gregory Kolen II. Environmental justice is an issue that affects everyone, but those who bear the brunt of it are often the most vulnerable