Mar 2, 2010

Environmental Justice and the EPA

Sustainable Seattle is making a conscious effort to reinvent ourselves, and one of the key aspects of this has been to pick social justice as a central principle of our work. We did this for at least three reasons: no system that serves only some people well is truly sustainable; sustainability groups haven't historically done as well as we should in reaching out to minority communities; and the impacts of unsustainable practices have tended to fall most heavily on minority communities. It's this last issue that I want to focus on today: why unsustainable practices have tended to affect some communities far worse than others, and what's being done to fix the problem now.

At heart, the problem is that poorer neighborhoods tend to bear the brunt of problems such as pollution, poorly designed & maintained infrastructure, and limited access to resources including jobs, open space and healthy food. This is not usually an issue of cartoon villains rubbing their hands together and saying "mwahaha we can dump all our PCBs over there and punish those people", but of systemic reasons why some communities have been better able to protect themselves than others. Each individual decision--the siting of a new road or landfill, or whether to spend the extra money putting power lines and railways underground--is made independently and rationally, but the end result becomes discriminatory.

One of the reasons for this is that poorer neighborhoods have historically fared less well at organizing themselves and speaking up for their interests in the planning process. Simply having money to spend can help directly by opening access to politicians, but it's not the only mechanism. The rich are more likely to have the time to do this, while people with less money have to focus on immediate needs. Neighborhoods with a range of first languages have a harder time co-ordinating internally as not everyone can communicate directly, and neighborhoods with large immigrant populations may simply lack the collective knowledge of who to approach to influence public policy.

We are working to address these issues: we are building on our historic community development projects with a renewed emphasis on the neediest neighborhoods in Seattle. Several of our staff are working with the neighborhoods along the Duwamish river, in partnership with 7 other non-profits to develop a neighborhood-led sustainability plan, and we will keep building on this work.

Another key issue, for all the same background reasons, is that poorer neighborhoods have tended to attract less attention from government bodies that can serve them by preventing and cleaning up pollution. Enforcement of environmental law tends to be complaint-driven, which unintentionally but inevitably leads to a bias in favor of neighborhoods that complain louder and more effectively. This is far from the only area where this happens--we have the idiom about squeaky wheels getting greased for a reason--but it's a significant one. Not being an enforcement agency ourselves, there is less we can do on this front, so it's very reassuring to hear that the EPA has decided to focus more of its efforts on environmental justice. Here is a press release we received from Charles Lee of the EPA's Office of Environmental Justice last week (emphasis added):

EPA Enforcement Goals and National Enforcement Initiatives Fiscal Year 2011-13

EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA) has adopted three goals and announced national enforcement initiatives that put special emphasis on environmental justice in our enforcement work.

The Enforcement Goals clearly identify what we are doing to advance the Administrator’s priorities to make a real difference to people where they live and work, and will guide our work beginning now and continuing into 2011 and beyond. The goals themselves are simple and straightforward:

· Aggressively go after pollution problems that matter to communities; vigorous civil and criminal enforcement that targets the most serious water, air and chemical hazards; advance environmental justice by protecting vulnerable communities;

· Reset our relationship with states: make sure we are delivering on our joint commitment to a clean and healthy environment, and

· Improve transparency.

The national enforcement initiatives announced today also emphasize the importance of protecting over burdened communities and advancing environmental justice. With your help, we held an unprecedented National Environmental Justice Advisory Council Public Teleconference to take comment on candidates for national enforcement initiatives. The goals and national enforcement initiatives we have adopted demonstrate how we have heard the message that it is important to make advancing environmental justice an integral part of our enforcement efforts. We have also heard that vigorous enforcement depends on the effectiveness of all of EPA’s regulatory tools, including rules, permits and monitoring. Environmental justice will inform our work in all the national enforcement initiatives, but I particularly want to draw your attention to our Air Toxics in Communities initiative, which will employ all our tools to address excess emissions caused by failure to comply with EPA’s “leak detection and repair,” requirements, restrictions on flaring, and excess emissions during start up, shut down and malfunction events, particularly in communities burdened by multiple pollution sources. Impacts on overburdened communities will also be central to our work to address concentrated animal feeding operations, emissions from the largest sources of air pollution and pollution from sewer overflows and stormwater in urban waters.

More information on the Enforcement Goals and the National Enforcement Initiatives announced today is available on the internet at: .

We have many challenges ahead, but I look forward to working with you to protect health and the environment and to advance environmental justice and protect vulnerable communities across the nation.

This is hugely important work, and we applaud the EPA's new emphasis on it.

Further reading: these two sites are great sources for more information about environmental justice:
Environmental Justice Network
The Environmental Justice journal (one whole issue available free online)

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