The Environmental Protection Agency last week resuscitated an interagency working group to tackle environmental justice, an issue that hasn't been discussed much in Washington in nearly a decade.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson called the group's first meeting — attended by Attorney General Eric Holder and the secretaries of Interior, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development — a historic event, as federal agencies recommit themselves to rooting out the "environmental discrimination" that occurs when landfills, coal plants and toxic waste dumps are located disproportionately in communities of color.
Advocates who have decried the problem since the 1970s want to see more than meeting minutes from the new government group, but they're heartened that at least someone in the capital is talking about this again.
"Many of the problems and challenges that were identified more than three decades ago have actually worsened, even with the passing of time," said Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University and the sociologist Grist calls the father of the movement.
Environmental discrimination isn't simply a legacy of the pre-Civil Rights era. The EJRC documented this year that waste from the BP oil spill has been disproportionately trucked into minority communities. Minorities make up 26 percent of the population in coastal counties in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana, but they're hosting 55 percent of the oil spill waste — 21,867 tons of it.
"What the environmental justice framework does is it penetrates this whole idea that all communities are created equal, that all communities are receiving the same level of protection," Bullard said. "When you look at reality, the ZIP code in one's neighborhood is probably the best predictor of one's health, as well as one's potential for environmental exposure."
A landmark 1987 report found that race was the most significant factor in predicting the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities in the U.S. — more so than household income and property values. When Bullard and several colleagues updated the report's conclusions 20 years later, relying on data from the 2000 Census, they found little had changed: Minorities still make up the majority of those living within 3 kilometers of the country's hazardous waste sites.
Back in the early 1990s, the first President Bush responded to the growing concern by creating an office of Environmental Equity within the EPA. President Clinton in 1994 expanded the move with an executive order charging all government agencies with integrating environmental justice into their missions.
That executive order didn't establish new law; it reinforced the weight of environmental justice protections already embedded in two existing laws, the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
All of that progress — and the first interagency working group established by Clinton's executive order — was halted during the second Bush Administration, Bullard said. Officials believed environmental justice was an impediment to business interests, and that, as a concept, it was grounded more in an unfunded mandate than actual law.
"Environmental justice was not really taken seriously," Bullard said. "In some cases, it was attacked vehemently. There was this atmosphere that if the lead agency, which is EPA, doesn't take charge, that gave a really resounding signal to other federal agencies: 'If EPA is not doing it, we don't have to do it either.'"
Officials now must dust off 10-year-old strategic environmental justice plans, if they can find them. And they have to act on what Bullard says many communities have already discovered for themselves — that the challenge is interdisciplinary. It's not just about the distribution of contaminants and pollution; it's also about the distribution of clean energy and public transit.
"It's talking about green jobs at the Department of Labor, how we have to make sure job training programs in place are also accessible to those communities," Bullard said. "When we talk about communities having access to healthy foods and having access to green space, we're talking about the Department of Agriculture, we're talking about the Park Service."
The sprawling nature of the interagency group suggests government gets this. But Bullard also warns that many communities have grown impatient over the last 10 years.
"I think something has to come out of this fairly quickly, and it has to be significant, and impactful," he said. "That's a high mark. And there will be some holding peoples' feet to the fire."