In President Obama's address to the nation Tuesday, he pledged to create a "Gulf Coast restoration plan" for families and workers whose lives have been negatively affected by the BP oil spill. "The plan," said the president, "will be designed by states, local communities, tribes, fishermen, businesses, conservationists and other Gulf residents."
For that to happen, he'd be best served by consulting with the community-based organizations throughout the Gulf region that are fully engaged in "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced." Otherwise, the most vulnerable communities might not get the recovery resources from the federal government that they need, as happened after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. There's no reason this needs to happen.
Gulf Coast communities are often environmental justice communities, overburdened by sickness and poverty, and located in places that federal safety nets don't reach, or where state safety nets don't exist. They are also in areas where polluting industries operate with impunity even though their emissions, leaks and spills have a disproportionate impact on already disadvantaged families.
The federal government is bound by Executive Order 12898, a 1994 order signed by Bill Clinton that compels federal departments and agencies to consider any environmental justice implications before implementing an action. The Environmental Protection Agency is the guardian of that order, and Administrator Lisa Jackson, who grew up in New Orleans, has honored environmental justice policy like no administrator before her.
But community organizations along the Gulf feel that many of their concerns still aren't being heard and are dissatisfied with the federal government's response. After the 2005 storms and floods, there was an enormous effort to bring together dozens of social and environmental justice organizations in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. The hundreds of nonprofit organizations that came online after Katrina were added into the mix. Birthed from that effort were coalitions such as STEPS and the Equity and Inclusion Campaign, which clustered small, local organizations into unified fronts, spurred by resources from the Gulf Coast Fund, Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, Oxfam America and many others.
But there is still a huge responsibility that belongs not just to BP but also to the federal government, especially for ensuring that the most vulnerable of these communities will recover fully. A major concern in these Gulf communities has been jobs. Unemployment was already high before the spill, and what work did exist often came from the fishing areas now closed by the slick, as well as from tourism industries. What few jobs are available now are in oil cleanup.
Much like the dispersants, those jobs come with a trade-off. With the former, shorelines and marshes are protected (although not all), but at the expense of the added toxicity from dispersant chemicals. With the latter, a certain level of income is protected (though not even close to normal income), but at the expense of the health of workers exposed to hazardous chemicals — chemicals often in dispersant mixtures.
Many workers are not getting proper safety training, and this is the wrong area to try to get over on that. Since the early 1990s, the New Orleans-based Deep South Center for Environmental Justice has worked with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to train people in the region in hazardous-material mitigation. So it was clear to these communities that BP was being slick when it staged trainings that lasted only a few hours and offered minimal safety equipment.
Oil spill workers and coastal communities have reported sickness from exposure to the oil. In a letter sent to the EPA on June 15, several organizations told the agency: "Oil spill impacted communities have been experiencing odors and health complaints consistent with exposure to oil spill chemicals. At the same time, EPA is reporting 'typical' air quality for the areas monitored. This disconnect reflects gaps in the current monitoring and communication plans employed by EPA that must be remedied."
African-American fishermen, a dwindling community, also issued a statement, really a list of demands to President Obama and Congress, asking for more oversight of BP and just compensation for those put out of work by the spill. Another letter issued June 10 on behalf of vulnerable families across the Gulf also asks that the federal government protect workers' provisions and health.
The federal agency that's been most responsive has been the EPA. Its official duties really include monitoring only air, water and sediment, but it has become the default monitor of community concerns too. Its website has the most comprehensive set of data and document collections. Unlike websites of other federal departments involved in the spill — Coast Guard, Interior, NOAA, DisasterAssistance.gov — the EPA's has Spanish and Vietnamese translations.
EPA senior officials have made multiple journeys to the Gulf Coast to learn firsthand what the problems are. EPA officials were present at four "listening sessions" with Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing, while BP and the Coast Guard have mostly been available only through hot lines. On June 15, there was a teleconference with EPA's National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), where community stakeholders were able to comment and ask questions of EPA directors, including Jackson, who appeared on the line for about 30 minutes. In her speech she promised that environmental justice would become part of the "standard operating procedure" of the EPA, and that she would work to do the same for the rest of the federal government.
As an example, Jackson pointed out that she assigned an environmental justice representative to the EPA's Emergency Operations Center, which is the liaison to the Joint Incident Command, the official federal coordinator of the oil disaster.
As grateful as the stakeholders were to hear this, they weren't without concerns. Derrick Evans, executive director of the Mississippi-based Turkey Creek Community Initiatives, credited the EPA in his presentation during the teleconference with making a "historic effort to reach out to environmental justice communities." However, he said, "the problem seems to be the exchange [of information] back — the information doesn't appear to be making its way back to policy and action. I am very grateful for the availability of government officials, but we don't see the return in investment of time and words that we would like to see." One of the things Evans would like to see is a citizens' advisory council guiding the oil spill response, similar to what was produced in the Exxon Valdez spill.
In Katrina's aftermath, the EPA's NEJAC put together a Gulf Coast Hurricanes Work Group, consisting of local Gulf environmental justice leaders. The group prepared a report asking that the EPA identify areas where vulnerable populations are located, improve its communication with those populations, and incorporate an environmental justice function into its Incident Command System.
Wilma Subra, a longtime environmental justice champion, chaired that group and participated in the teleconference this week. In terms of whether the EPA is honoring the report's recommendations, she says, "I think they have honored them pretty well. They've had much more interaction with communities, and it is much more open and transparent." Subra also says that the EPA has been quick to provide monitoring systems in places along the coast where workers and residents have reported sickness from odors.
EPA hasn't honored all of the recommendations, though — notably an update of its environmental justice geographic-assessment online application, which would identify vulnerable communities and the public health needs of each. The EPA's website shows that this tool is under development, but a disaster is already here, and hurricane season has officially begun. A report released by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights on June 9 also urges stronger environmental justice policy enforcement beyond meeting with communities.
But responsibility for implementing environmental justice policy does not fall solely on the EPA, which is clearly the only agency even trying. Executive Order 12898 mandates that all federal agencies implement it. For that, the ultimate responsibility falls on the president. In his national address, Obama said that a transition to a clean-energy economy with good jobs that "benefit all of us" was possible "only if we rally together and act as one nation — workers and entrepreneurs; scientists and citizens; the public and private sectors."
The best way for President Obama to make that happen is to fully engage with these Gulf communities.