Inside EPA  [Printer-friendly version]
July 1, 2005


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

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

"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

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."