Inside EPA [Printer-friendly version] July 1, 2005 EPA'S DRAFT EQUITY PLAN DROPS RACE AS A FACTOR IN DECISIONS By Manu Raju EPA's recently released draft strategic plan on environmental justice1 -- the first in a decade -- proposes to drop race as a factor in identifying and prioritizing populations that may be disadvantaged by the agency's policies, asserting that all communities should be treated equally regardless of their race or socioeconomic status. The agency's approach appears to conflict with a measure approved by the Senate this week and the House last month that would preclude EPA from sidestepping Clinton-era Executive Order 12898, which says every federal agency should identify and address the "disproportionately high and adverse" environmental effects of its programs on minority and low-income communities. The agency's new plan comes despite a critical inspector general (IG) report issued last year saying failure to identify and prioritize minority and poor communities violates the executive order on environmental justice. The agency has strongly refuted the IG's interpretation of the executive order, but EPA Administrator Steve Johnson said during his Senate confirmation process earlier this year that the strategic plan would "take into account" the report. Instead, EPA's June 16 draft strategic plan defines environmental justice as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies. Relevant documents are available on InsideEPA.com. "Environmental justice is achieved when everyone, regardless of race, culture or income enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision- making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn and work," the draft document says. Critics say failing to emphasize race or socioeconomic status would not adequately address pollution that may disproportionately harm low- income and minority communities, which are often located near polluting industries. The draft strategic plan, which was announced in the June 22 Federal Register, says the final document will serve as the main instrument EPA uses to ensure environmental justice considerations are taken into account when agency managers develop policies. The plan will lay out specific goals, such as reducing asthma attacks and detail "strategic targets" for achieving the goals. For instance, if EPA set a goal of reducing phosphorous levels in water by 5 percent, then the Office of Water would ensure that 1 percent would be reduced from environmental justice communities. The environmental justice plan is intended to comport with initiatives laid out in the agency-wide 2006-2011 strategic plan. According to internal EPA documents obtained by Inside EPA, the agency's strong rejection of the IG report prompted questions among agency staff about how to consider race and minority status as a factor when developing environmental justice policies. But in the draft strategic plan, EPA reiterated its position to the IG that the executive order does not require the agency to identify the populations and that people of all races and income levels should be afforded environmental justice. The debate within the agency was highlighted in an e-mail sent last year by Charles Lee, associate director of the Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ), to regional environmental justice (EJ) coordinators and OEJ directors. "It is my opinion that not everyone is clear about the role of environmental laws in integrating environmental justice," he said in an Oct. 27, 2004, e-mail obtained by Inside EPA through a Freedom of Information Act request. "Nor is it clear that unless we are able to link EJ issues/impacts with provisions of law and regulation that are cognizable, we will not be able to integrate environmental justice. This is one issue that goes to the heart of the lack of clarity and disagreement between many EJ Coordinators, OEJ, and the Agency response to the OIG report." Lee added that questions remained about how to consider race and socioeconomic issues when developing environmental justice policies. "How does one translate race and income into a framework where they are useful for understanding and assessing disproportionate environmental and public health effects?" EPA did not respond to inquires seeking comment further comment. The March 2004 IG report criticized EPA for its interpretation of environmental justice, claiming that ensuring that the all people of all races and income levels have a right to a clean environment is the general mission of the agency. "We believe the Executive Order was specifically issued to provide environmental justice to minority and/or low-income populations due to concerns that those populations had been disproportionately impacted by environmental risk." The report's recommendations included one calling on EPA to develop a comprehensive strategic plan on the issue. The plan comes as the Senate this week joined the House in unanimously calling on EPA to ensure that no funds are used "in contravention of, or to delay the implementation of" the 1994 executive order. The Senate amendment was offered by Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL). The language is included in both chamber's fiscal year 2006 appropriations bills for EPA, which the Senate at press time was expected to approve June 29 and send to a House-Senate conference committee. Environmentalists say because of EPA's failure to identify the populations, and its move in the strategic plan to downplay the minority and income status of a community, the agency would be in violation of the House and Senate measures. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL), the lead sponsor in the House on the initiative, said in his floor statement, "In adopting my amendment, Congress will call on EPA to move forward with the identification of at-risk minority and low-income communities so appropriate steps can be taken to improve health and well-being."