Tempers Flare at Environmental Justice Conference

By Brian Hansen

ARLINGTON, Virginia, December 12, 2000 (ENS) - Members of a federal government advisory panel today lambasted President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to aggressively combat the scourge of "environmental racism" that they maintain is afflicting many poor communities and communities of color.

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Minority children play in the shadow of a polluting industrial facility. Critics say the EPA and other federal agencies are not doing enough to combat what has been termed "environmental racism." (Photo courtesy Corporate Watch)

The charges were leveled by members of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), a stakeholder group established to advise the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on strategies to curtail the disproportionately high numbers of polluting industries and toxic waste sites often found in minority and low income communities.

The charges came as the 26 member NEJAC board met with EPA officials in Arlington, Virginia, this week to discuss the agency's soon to be released environmental justice guidance document.

mossville

The concentration of chemical plants near this home in Mossville, Louisiana, have earned the region the name "Cancer Alley." Mossville is a poor, African American community. (Photo by Keith Harouin,courtesy Greenpeace USA)

Luke Cole, a civil rights and environmental law attorney with the California based Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, was one of many NEJAC board members to criticize the EPA for the way the agency went about drafting its forthcoming environmental justice guidance document. Cole complained that the still secret document was drafted by high ranking EPA officials who "completely ignored" the recommendations of the NEJAC panel, which was established through an executive order signed by President Clinton in 1994.

Cole and other NEJAC members did not hesitate in voicing their frustrations over the process to Barry Hill, director of the EPA's environmental justice division. Cole lashed out at Hill and other EPA officials for "meeting behind closed doors" to draft the environmental justice document, and for treating the 26 member NEJAC board like "window dressing" to a problem that the agency is paying only "lip service" to.

"It only reinforces the idea that EPA is not responsive to the concept of environmental justice," an agitated Cole said to Hill.

Hill, who appeared to be visibly shaken by the allegation, attempted to reply to Cole's charge. But Cole shouted down the EPA official, saying, "I do not want to hear your response."

But Hill, who had grown noticably angry during the exchange, would not be silenced. He sternly poked his index finger at Cole, saying, "I'm going to give you my response."

Hill emphasized that the EPA's forthcoming environmental justice guidance document was not intended to be an "environmental decision," which he said would have required the input of the NEJAC board and other relevant stakeholders. The guidance document, Hill said, was only intended to provide a broad framework for dealing with environmental justice issues.

But Hill's explanation was not good enough for other members of the NEJAC board, including Vernice Miller-Travis, who coordinates a Ford Foundation environmental justice program in the state of New York.

"I represent my community, and I don't want my name on [an EPA document] if it's going to be working against my community," Miller-Travis said to Hill. "There's a profound contradiction between what you say to the country and what you say to us" on the subject of environmental justice.

NEJAC board member Rosa Hilda Ramos was also quick to criticize Hill for ignoring the input of the environmental justice advisory board. Ramos represents the 36,000 people living in the Puerto Rican town of Catano, an economically disadvantaged community saddled with a disproportionately high concentration of industrial wastes and hazardous substances.

"Commenting at the end of the process is not real community participation," Ramos said.

Hill and other EPA officials tried to move beyond the testy exchange with the NEJAC board members by yielding the floor to Tony Guadagno, an attorney with the EPA's Office of General Counsel. Guadagno unveiled a 14 page memorandum that the EPA drafted in order to highlight the various statutory and regulatory remedies available for redressing matters pertaining to environmental justice.

pinebluff

This checkpoint guards the entrance to the U.S. Army's Pine Bluff Arsenal, which holds 12 percent of the nation's chemical weapons stockpile - just outside the predominantly African American community of Pine Bluff. (Photo courtesy U.S. Army Program Manager for Chemical Demilitarization)

But the memo only drew more catcalls from the NEJAC board. Cole, in a sarcastic tone, said that he was "very excited that in the waning hours of the Clinton administration that [EPA] finally managed" to compile a list of strategies to combat matters of environmental racism. Cole's remark evoked a series of audible groans from the audience, which was comprised of EPA officials, environmental activists and industry representatives from throughout the country.

But Cole's point was echoed by a host of others on the NEJAC board, including Miller-Travis, who noted that the EPA's environmental justice enforcement document had been reduced from 54 to only 14 pages.

"There's a lot that's not in there," Miller-Travis said of the EPA's memo. Miller-Travis was also upset that the EPA incorporated a type of "disclaimer" into the document, which she said gave federal agencies an "out" from actually having to use the nation's civil rights and environmental laws to prosecute environmental justice cases.

That segued nicely into the meeting's keynote address, which was entitled, "Missed Opportunities in Environmental Laws." The address was delivered by Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Arnwine's remarks revolved around Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits recipients of federal monies from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin in their programs or activities. Title VI has long been used by environmental justice advocates as a tool to address specific instances of environmental racism in federally funded programs.

Arnwine applauded the EPA for creating an office of environmental justice, saying that its mere existence shows that the issue is important to the agency.

But Arnwine told ENS that the EPA has "not been as proactive as it could have been in using existing laws to protect minority communities from environmental racism." Nor has the agency effectively used the courts to promote a better understanding of the concept of environmental justice, Arnwine added.

"EPA has failed miserably in that regard," Arnwine said, adding that the same can be said for the Department of Defense, the Energy Department, and a host of other federal agencies.

chemsuits

Pine Bluff Arsenal employees wearing Level A protective equipment to monitor the chemical weapons in a storage igloo. (Photo courtesy U.S. Army Program Manager for Chemical Demilitarization)

Arnwine said that the EPA's failure to prosecute environmental justice cases is an "imbalance that you don't find anywhere else in the federal sector." She noted that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is frequently a plaintiff in the nation's court system, filing suits to enforce fair housing laws. The opposite is true for the EPA she said, noting that the agency is frequently a defendant accused of violating the nation's environmental laws.

"That's very telling," she said. "It shows a real lack of a proactive, affirmative analysis of how to use environmental justice concepts in the courts."

Arnwine's point was echoed by Cole, who called the EPA's performance on environmental justice issues "disastrous."

"There are many smart, well intentioned EPA staffers focused on this issue, but the agency is really just paying lip service to the idea, and not actually making it happen on the ground," Cole said.

Cole noted that of the more than 100 Title VI environmental justice complaints that have been filed since 1993, only one has been decided on the merits. The plaintiff lost that case, Cole noted.

"But the vast majority of cases are plaintiffs versus the EPA, not EPA versus the bad guys," Cole added. "That's very instructive instructive."

Asked about how the outcome of the still undecided presidential election would effect the enforcement of the prosecution of environmental justice cases, Cole said, "We've had eight years of disaster under Clinton. It's going to be a worse disaster under [Texas Governor George W.] Bush, but it certainly wouldn't be rosy under [Vice President Al] Gore."

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Peabody Coal Company's Kayenta mine covers over 10 miles on the Navajo Indian reservation in northeast Arizona. Native American communities are often impacted by environmental justice maters. (Photo courtesy Sol Communications)

The impetus for environmental justice comes from the 'EJ movement,' not the federal government," Cole said. "The EPA has been dragged kicking and screaming into this every step of the way, so on one level, it doesn't matter who's in charge."

For more information on the EPA's office of environmental justice, log on to: http://es.epa.gov/oeca/main/ej.