The Environment and Obama: What’s Next?

As he starts a second term, we look at how he's addressed eco-hazards in poor and minority areas.

President Barack Obama talks to Environmental Protection Agency as EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson listens. (Pool/Getty)
President Barack Obama talks to Environmental Protection Agency as EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson listens. (Pool/Getty)

(The Root) — Until the inauguration on Jan. 21, The Root will be taking a daily look at the president’s record on a number of policy issues, including his first-term accomplishments and what many Americans hope to see him accomplish in a second term. Today: environmental justice. See previous postings in this series here.

Background: Environmental justice — the notion that Americans who live in poor and minority communities should not be overburdened by pollution and other environmental hazards — has been an official priority of the federal government since 1994. That’s when President Bill Clinton signed an executive order directing federal agencies to develop strategies to address the disproportionately high, adverse human-health or environmental effects of their programs on vulnerable populations.

President Obama emphasized his own commitment to the issue as early as his 2008 campaign, promising that, if elected, he would strengthen the EPA Office of Environmental Justice, expand the Environmental Justice Small Grants Program and empower low-income and minority communities to respond to threats to their environmental health.

First-term accomplishments: Obama made good on his commitment to strengthen the EPA when he appointed Lisa Garcia as associate assistant administrator for environmental justice and arranged for her to report directly to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson instead of to a lower-level official.

Jackson tasked Garcia with integrating environmental policy into the agency’s rulemaking and actions. Under Jackson’s leadership, the EPA took the lead on the government’s environmental-justice goals, with Garcia heading up the Interagency Working Group — including representatives from the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Energy and the Department of Commerce — that’s dedicated to the issue. 

That group had lapsed under President George W. Bush but began meeting again in September 2010, Garcia told The Root. Reinvigorated, it began its work in earnest by holding 18 listening sessions around the country “to hear directly from the communities of color and poor communities whose environments posed the worst risks,” she said. 

From that feedback, the EPA created Plan EJ 2014, which Garcia called “EPA’s road map to integrating environmental justice.” Its goals, she says, are to “protect communities overburdened by pollution, to empower them to take action to improve the health and their environments and to build healthy, sustainable communities.” In February 2011, each agency issued an environmental-justice plan for improving the quality of life for people in minority and tribal areas.

When it came to the promise to expand the Environmental Small Justice Grants Program — whose funds go to help community-based programs in “overburdened and vulnerable communities” address environmental risks — Politifact couldn’t locate the year-by-year data on grant money awarded, but it did find that overall environmental-justice funding at the EPA in 2012 exceeded the amount Obama had inherited by about 25 percent, which it called “a healthy increase over four years.”

The EPA’s commitment to provide low-income communities with the legal ability to challenge policies was less successful. Although communities have the power to petition the federal agencies under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits recipients of federal money from discriminating on the basis of race, a 2011 report provided by the EPA from an outside consulting firm found that the agency had “not adequately adjudicated” these complaints, pointing to backlogs of cases, with some waiting as eight years. It’s been accused of “poor investigative quality and a lack of responsiveness.”