Will We Reverse the Little Progress We’ve Made on Environmental Justice?

By Konisky, David; University, Indiana | MinnPost.com, July 18, 2017 | Go to article overview

Will We Reverse the Little Progress We’ve Made on Environmental Justice?


Konisky, David, University, Indiana, MinnPost.com


The Flint water crisis was perhaps the most high-profile example of the social inequalities tied to environmental issues. But it is hardly the first.

There is ample evidence that hazardous waste facilities, Superfund sites, sources of toxic air and water pollution, and other environmental nuisances are more likely to be located in poor and minority communities, and that these communities face disproportionate health risks as a result.

After 20 years of federal polices failing to adequately address these types of issues, the EPA under President Obama was beginning to make progress on environmental justice.

Now following the election of President Trump and the appointment of Scott Pruitt to head the EPA, these positive developments are at risk of being reversed.

What is environmental justice?

The EPA defines environmental justice as the “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

It was in 1994 that President Clinton issued an executive order in that directed the EPA and other federal agencies to integrate environmental justice considerations into their policies, programs and decision-making. Despite this presidential directive, the EPA was slow to act to take on this issue and the executive order became little more than symbolic policy.

I edited a book in 2015 called “Failed Promises,” which brought together a team of social scientists to evaluate federal environmental justice policy. My colleagues and I found the federal government has largely fallen short of its commitments to address the disproportionate environmental burdens on low-income and minority communities.

The EPA during the Obama administration, however, dramatically changed course. The agency not only prioritized environmental justice in principle, it also invested significant resources to take on the issue with genuine seriousness and rigor. Backed by the strong personal commitments of Administrator Lisa Jackson and her successor, Gina McCarthy, the agency for the first time developed the guidance, procedures and tools necessary for taking concrete action to redress income- and race-based disparities in environmental protection.

For example, the EPA designed a new screening and mapping tool, EJSCREEN, to inform agency decisions. EJSCREEN provides information about the relationship between environmental risk and socioeconomic factors in local communities, providing officials (and the public) with a clear picture of vulnerabilities at different locations across the country.

In 2011, the EPA released its Plan EJ 2014, which was followed a few years later by EJ 2020 Action Agenda, a 5-year strategic plan for advancing environmental justice.

These efforts began to pay dividends in the final years of the Obama administration, as the EPA more routinely considered environmental justice in its activities. This also came into play when, for example, officials evaluated the costs and benefits of new regulations, monitored toxic pollutants outside refineries and set federal enforcement priorities.

The record was not perfect. The EPA’s Civil Rights Office did not resolve its historical mismanagement of Title VI claims which are made by communities when they believe recipients of federal monies are violating their civil rights (e. …

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