Environmental Justice Becoming Just a Platitude at EPA
New “Action Plan” Neuters Enforceable Protection for Overburdened Communities
Washington, DC — The proposed new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “Action Agenda” for environmental justice contains precious little action and continues to marginalize disadvantaged communities beset by disproportionate pollution burdens, according to comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The EPA plan focuses on symbolic steps that will do little to lift the pollution burden off the poor.
Public comment closes today on EPA’s draft “EJ [Environmental Justice] 2020 Action Agenda framework” which would guide agency efforts over the next five years to make “a visible difference in environmentally overburdened, underserved, and economically distressed communities,” according to the agency website. PEER faults this new iteration for, among other reasons, its –
- Divorce of environmental justice from its underlying basis in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This separation has reduced environmental justice to a largely voluntary program;
- Absence of any guidance for state and local recipients of EPA funds, leaving the program as an intellectual exercise for EPA staff with little practical consequence; and
- Lack of any enforceable regulation or even a plan to promulgate any.
“At EPA, environmental justice has devolved into aspirational window-dressing,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the agency has yet to take promised steps to enable communities to defend themselves. “EPA’s ongoing failure to put some teeth into this program only perpetuates environmental injustice.”
The PEER comments urge EPA to adopt best practices from other agencies. For example, the Federal Highway Administration commits itself to “identify and address” undue pollution impacts in communities. By contrast, the EPA plan seeks to “build partnerships” to negotiate away problems.
“In the face of environmental racism, the EPA stance is that of a passive cheerleader,” added Ruch, pointing out that despite its muddled approach EPA is charged with coordinating environmental justice efforts among all federal agencies. “EPA has not even been able to develop guidance to implement the civil rights requirements underlying its environmental justice policies in the hundreds of state and local programs it funds, in the very communities bearing the brunt of pollution-driven insults to public health.”
The PEER comments also describe the fragmented and conflicted cross-currents within EPA that have caused various internal reform efforts to be stillborn. In addition, the agency has a history of civil rights complaints inside its own workforce. “Since EPA has not addressed the civil rights issues within its ranks, it is ill equipped to remedy those same problems outside its hallways,” Ruch concluded.