(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."
Brent Newell of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, a national environmental-justice organization, said that when it comes to this area, he's been gravely disappointed. "The agency has been just horrible when it comes to implementing and enforcing Title IV — that is, ensuring recipients of federal money don't discriminate when it comes to environmental exposures," he told The Root.
An example, he says, is the agency's settlement in the widely reported Angelita v. California Department of Pesticide Regulation case, in which his organization represented the complainants. The EPA found that Latino children's exposure to pesticide pollution was disproportionate to what white children faced. But when it came to the settlement, "the agency lacked the political will to provide a meaningful remedy," he says, lamenting that it provided for little more than continued monitoring.
Newell wasn't alone. Sierra Club President Allison Chin called the settlement "a major blow to the cause of environmental justice."
Politifact concluded in November that overall, the administration had shown mixed progress and characterized its efforts to address environmental justice as "a compromise."
Second-term expectations: The agencies in the Interagency Working Group are due to publish progress reports on their environmental-justice strategies in 2013. The plan, Garcia said, is to "continue with our commitments" and "to be accountable and continue the work."
"We still think that if you focus on some of the vulnerable populations or areas that are overburdened, you can really make plosive movement and [have a] healthy impact, reduce asthma rates and really improve quality of life in communities," she told The Root.
Outside the agency, Newell says that advocates aren't as hopeful about seeing concrete actions and sanctions for environmental discrimination in the next term. His fear is that the second term will be like the first, characterized by, as he puts it, "a lot of talk and little action."
"If the Obama administration is going to make environmental justice a reality, it has to change the environmental injustice that is occurring on the ground … We can't continue to talk about 'initiatives.' That's just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," Newell said. "And giving communities a voice isn't [enough], either, if the process is discriminatory. What good is being at the table if you're going to be on the menu?"