Environmental Justice: What's EPA's Plan?
Administrator Lisa P. Jackson says all people deserve clean communities. Here's what she's done.
LPJ: First we need to help communities be empowered with knowledge about why these decisions are so important. And then we need to get an empowered community a seat at the table. So, no, EPA and the federal government are never going to be in charge of siting [deciding where sites are located], but we can put information in the hands of communities. For example, our Sustainable Communities efforts work with HUD, Transportation and EPA to make walkable, livable communities that are affordable for people.
We also have school-siting guidance, which is totally voluntary, but in a lot of minority communities, schools are built on old [abandoned industrial] Brownfield sites. So [our guidance says that] it's important to make sure those sites are cleaned up before the school comes in. We almost act like the communities' consultant. We give them information on highly technical issues that make them understand how a decision will affect their health on the ground.
TR: You mentioned voluntary "guidance" as part of your environmental-justice work. Much of your newly released Plan EJ 2014 (a blueprint for integrating environmental justice into both federal and local decision making) involves guidance for local officials -- an approach that assumes politicians and businesses are willing to take extra steps to protect poor communities. How do you convince people that these aren't just mere suggestions with no teeth?
LPJ: There are regulations on the book right now -- our civil rights laws -- that are the remedy when people feel that they've been wronged. What we've learned is that getting to the problem after it's already happened is really a problem. The real cure is here is communities who speak up and are in the process at the beginning, whatever it may be, whether it's a cleanup process or a siting process.
One could wish that we could wave a wand and mandate environmental justice everywhere, but instead what Plan EJ 2014 does is have specific steps that we're committing to -- to continue to put information out on how to write permits, how to do an EJ analysis quantitatively when you write a permit, or how to do enforcement to ensure that we're concentrating on those communities that have disproportionate impact and that have been neglected.
TR: Speaking of enforcement, one of EPA's stated goals for the next few years is to keep raw sewage and storm water out of sewers, a problem caused by outdated infrastructure in cities across the country. How are you cracking down on such a prevalent issue?
LPJ: Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia has a "Green City, Clean Waters" program, with this whole idea of making the city green. Part of that is around water infrastructure -- taking up pavement and putting in rain gardens, parks and open spaces where water can seep into the ground. That sounds kind of "bugs and bunny"-ish, but putting green space in the heart of the urban jungle has a wonderful impact on water quality and a great impact on the community as a whole.
EPA is holding Michael Nutter and the city of Philadelphia up as an example of our overall work on sustainability. We're negotiating with him a consent decree that changes his obligation to do just what we call "gray infrastructure" to address storm water, and puts green infrastructure as a major focus.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.