On the first day of his tenure, President Joe Biden began signing executive orders to overturn the policies of the Trump administration. Radical directive calls for stronger action to protect public health and the environment and hold polluters accountable, including those who “disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities”.
To lead this effort, Biden appointed Michael regan at the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency. Regan, who currently heads the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, is said to be the first black man to serve as an EPA administrator in the agency’s 50-year history. His appointment fueled hopes that the agency make environmental justice a top priority.
APE first established an Environmental Justice Office in 1992, but I know of my research on decades of agency work that he never paid close attention to the matter. Despite activism growing movement for environmental justice, there is widespread evidence that pollution overloads poor and minority communities, and a Clinton era decree which required federal action, the EPA largely failed modify its programs, policies and decision-making processes accordingly.
The agency’s toolbox for tackling environmental injustice is limited. Current environmental laws do not require it to develop policies to address uneven pollution loads, and in some cases, they make this task difficult. Many Members of the House and Senate presented bills to give the EPA such a mandate, and they can try again in the new Congress. But the agency can start before that happens.
Drive inclusion and application
In my opinion, EPA officials can advance environmental justice immediately by striving to make inclusive decisions. This means not only listening to people of color and other communities suffering the burden of pollution, but empowering them to be involved in the decisions that affect their lives.
Historically, the EPA has too often taken an “advertise and defend” approach in its decisions. By giving more voice to these communities, I believe the agency will make better decisions and show that it is determined to change its historical insensitivity to the objectives of environmental justice.
Second, EPA leaders should prioritize enforcement activities in crowded communities. Numerous studies have shown that federal and state agencies conduct fewer inspections and impose lighter penalties when the blamed pollution sources are located in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Researchers have documented this model on questions such as air pollution, drink water and hazardous waste management.
The application of the EPA has decreased for many years, the agency must therefore intensify these efforts as a whole. But its leaders are free to target law enforcement on businesses located in heavily polluted communities. And they can use existing resources, like the EJSCREEN mapping tool, to help identify these communities.
EPA officials will need to coordinate these enforcement efforts with the US Department of Justice, which is responsible for prosecuting cases. In addition, the EPA will need to set clear expectations that states, which do the lion’s share of enforcement, also prioritize environmental justice communities.
Highlight discrimination and analyze new rules
Another thing the EPA can do now is make better use of its authority under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Specifically, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits organizations that receive federal funds from. discrimination against protected groups. This includes state and local agencies that issue permits and carry out other activities to implement federal pollution control laws.
As external evaluations have shown, the EPA has a abysmal record of the application of Title VI. Historically, it has been unwilling to draw conclusions of discrimination, or even, in many cases, to seriously investigate credible allegations. In one of the rare exceptions, when Michigan authorities approved the implementation of the Genesee power station in a predominantly black neighborhood in Flint, Michigan, despite community objections, the agency’s finding that it was discriminatory came 25 years after the original complaint.
The EPA can improve this process by opening its door to Title VI claims and dealing with them quickly and fairly. This will show environmental justice communities that they take their concerns seriously and make it clear to state and local agencies that discrimination is not acceptable.
A fourth immediate action that the EPA can take is to adopt a common practice to consider environmental justice in developing its rules. President Clinton’s Executive Order of 1994 suggested doing so, but unlike traditional cost-benefit analysis, it is not a regular game of agency decision-making.
Fortunately EPA already has guidance which was published in 2016 showing how to do an environmental justice analysis. By paying more attention to how the new rules affect low-income communities and communities of color, the agency can make its decisions more transparent and adopt policies that have less impact on already overburdened communities.
Achieving environmental justice is a long-term endeavor, and the EPA is just one of many government agencies that must change their ways before the United States can move forward. Ultimately, Congress will need to provide the EPA with new tools. By then, the agency can more effectively use its current powers to get started.
David Konisky is Professor of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University.
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