The 20th anniversary of the environmental justice executive order

A power plant in Detroit.
© Sierra Club

By Leslie Fields, Director of the Sierra Club Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships Program.

On a very snowy winter's day February 11, 1994, President Clinton signed a historic executive order: EO 12898, "Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations."

The executive order directs, to the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law, federal agencies to identify and address the disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their actions on minority and low-income populations. The order mandates that each agency develop a strategy for implementing environmental justice (EJ). The order also directs promotion of nondiscrimination in federal programs that affect human health and the environment -- and that minority and low-income communities have access to public information and public participation.

The road to the environmental justice executive order has been a long and hard one for EJ communities and activists. The road is still uphill, with many tough and treacherous areas. Communities of color and low-income communities, urban and rural, have been sited for decades near toxic and noxious facilities and extractive processes.

It is commonly accepted that the EJ movement formally started in 1982 when black residents in Warren County, NC, lay down in road near where a carcinogen-laden landfill was about to be sited. This county, which was mostly African American already, had a number of such landfills, and the community had had enough. Indigenous communities, farmworkers, and workers inside industrial plants had long agitated for environmental justice, as well. The research and documentation started piling up that the government was acquiescing to disproportionate pollution in communities of color and low-income communities.

The environmental justice communities have had to make a way when there has been no way. The executive order gave EJ folks a ledge to cling to when taking on the federal government. Unfortunately, the implementation of this executive order is not complete. The work was stalled during the Bush administration. Meanwhile EJ activists continued to fight for the health and sustainability of their communities.

The Sierra Club started work on EJ issues in the 1990s, and the Environmental Justice Program was created in 2000. Organizers were placed in communities, at their request (as the mission of the program), to work on local EJ issues. The EJ Program was later combined with the Community Partnerships Program to become the present Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships (EJCP) Program.

EJCP has worked closely with communities in Appalachia, Detroit, El Paso, Flagstaff, Memphis, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C. All the organizers and the director integrate the local issues to the national and international levels on a frequent basis. EJCP has fruitful collaborations with many EJ networks as well as with faith, civil rights, and labor organizations. The Sierra Club's EJCP Program is called upon to collaborate and convene with the EPA and other federal agencies and with EJ communities on a regular basis. Due to this influence, the Sierra Club has moved toward a greater justice frame in its national campaign work.

The biggest recent boost of attention to the environmental justice executive order began with President Obama selecting Lisa P. Jackson as the EPA Administrator for his first term. She made EJ one of her seven priorities.

Through EJ Plan 2014 (and EJ activists' advocacy around it), the EPA is facilitating the active participation of the aforementioned federal agencies with a coordinated approach to address the suffering of the overburdened EJ communities. In December of 2010, then-Administrator Jackson and Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley convened the White House Forum on EJ.

Despite a greater focus on EJ at the EPA (February was deemed "Environmental Justice" month by the EPA this year), much more needs to be done on to prioritize EJ in enforcement in all the regions. Seriously overburdened communities, for example, are suffering detrimental health effects and economic deprivation from chemical accidents and proposed coal terminals. Port communities are exposed to more and more truck, container, and barge traffic due to globalization. Communities around refineries are being subjected to more fires and explosions at refineries that cannot safely refine tar sands due its toxic content. People in Charleston, WV, are still wondering whether their water is safe to drink after a chemical spill last month. Tribal communities and border communities still have to live with the legacy of Cold War uranium contamination and pesticides contamination.

These communities are proactively fighting for a just sustainable future and refuse to be condemned as sacrifice zones. The executive order has been helpful in mandating that EJ become central in these agencies' cultures, practices, compliance, and enforcement. Much more work needs to be done by the federal government to protect the most overburdened and vulnerable communities.

The EPA is holding a 20th anniversary celebration at the National EJ Advisory Council (NEJAC) in Denver, CO, on February 11-12. Sierra Club EJCP Organizer Rita Harris will be featured on the commemoration panel on February 11. See also the Sierra Club's comments on Dr. Bob Bullard's (called the father of environmental justice) link about the 20th anniversary. Learn more about Dr. Bob Bullard here.

Tags: Environmental Justice | Environmental Policy | EPA

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