EPA Revives Environmental Justice Working Group After Ten Year Hiatus


About 55% of waste from the Gulf oil spill has been disposed of in minority communities. Photo: Deepwater Horizon Response via flickr.

With little fanfare other than press release a week ago (which I missed and Miller McCune didn't) the Environmental Protection Agency has reconvened the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (EJ IWG), after more than a decade's hiatus. In that press release the EPA touted the revival as a demonstration of "the Obama administration's dedicating to ensuring all Americans have strong federal protection from environmental and health hazards...This historic gathering marks a recommitment to advancing the mandate of Executive Order 12898, 'Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations,' which states that each agency, with the law as its guide, should make environmental justice part of its mission."

Miller-McCune had a really good recent example of how by and large environmental problems disproportionately affect those on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder:

The [Environmental Justice Resource Center] documented this year that waste from the BP oil spill has been disproportionately trucked into minority communities. Minorities make up 26 percent of the population in coastal counties in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana, but they're hosting 55 percent of the oil spill waste -- 21,867 tons of it.

More broadly one could just as easily highlight how though overwhelmingly climate change has been caused by actions of the rich nations of the world (with China and a few other newly-industrialized and highly-deforesting nations added in), it will be the poorest nations of the world which will bear the greatest burden. Consider the impact on Bangladesh, whose per capita emissions are between 50 and 60 times lower than the top emitting nations of the world, and the coming devastation there.

The stated role of the EJ IWG is "to guide, support and enhance federal environmental justice and community-based activities. By coordinating the expertise and resources of federal government agencies, the EJ IWG will work to identify projects where federal collaboration can support the development of healthy and sustainable communities."

Nancy Sutley, chair of Obama's Council on Environmental Quality, stated with glowing rhetoric the importance of environmental justice: "This country was built on the promise of equal opportunity for all of us, yet low-income families and minority communities shoulder a disproportionate amount of pollution and environmental degradation. We cannot and will not ignore these disparities...I am committed to ensuring that environmental justice isn't just an afterthought, it's an integral part of our mission."

Very good. That's a nobly and suitably high standard to aspire to. Let's just hope domestic political squabbles--cough, complete and utter inability to enact meaningful national renewable energy and climate policies, even if not EPA's fault at all, cough--doesn't reduce that aspiration in practice to polluting corporation's lowest common denominator.

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More on Environmental Justice:
Report: Global Warming Disproportionately Affects African Americans, Low-Income Communities
Climate Justice Fast Begins - Hunger Strike Continues Through End of COP15 Conference
We Must Engage the Ethical Dimension of Combatting Climate Change, Religious & Civil Society Groups Urge

Tags: Barack Obama | Environmental Justice | EPA