We graded the feds on their environmental justice programs — here’s how they fared
As the winds settled from Hurricane Sandy, Shaun Donovan, then-head of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), vowed that his agency would give the communities that were most impacted by the superstorm the highest priority for revovery efforts. Donovan’s federal task force on post-Sandy rebuilding did adopt some of the ideas forwarded by the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, whose members were among those most devastated by the storm. Yet we learned later that African Americans and Latinos were still stiffed on relief funds.
This is material, classic environmental injustice, and it’s the kind of thing that community organizations don’t have the capacity to monitor. But the federal government has a task force in place that can ensure that environmental justice is considered in these kinds of settings. It’s called Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice, or the “IWG.” It was created during the Clinton years, and is staffed by representatives of 17 federal departments and agencies, all sharing the goal of making good on the President’s goal in 1994 of making sure that environmental justice is integrated into policy decisions across the entire federal family. The Environmental Protection Agency has been the leading actor on this, but the intention was never to bottle all environmental justice work into one agency.
You wouldn’t have found much help from the IWG during the Bush years, when it was mostly defunct. However, since renewing their environmental justice vows in 2010, federal agencies have set in place strategy plans spelling out how they will focus their policies to correct inequities in overburdened communities, or at least avoid reinforcing them. The IWG agencies also committed to producing annual progress reports so that we can track how they’re making out with those strategies. Those reports are published around this time every year, and the full group will meet later this month to assess its overall output.
I can dig it: You probably don’t have the time to read through all those dense reports. So I took the liberty of reading them for you. (You’re welcome!) Some of them read like the agency actually has a person in-office who is thoroughly thinking through how environment, climate change, racism, and income affects living quality. Others read like someone just listed a bunch of stuff their agency did for people of color, no matter how little it has to do with the environment or living.
The EPA is obviously the standard-bearer with its Plan EJ 2014, and its 2020 Action Agenda update. (I’ve written at length about those, so I won’t give you more here — just click those links in the last sentence.) But it’s not only EPA’s responsibility to worry about how to unburden the most burdened communities — it’s every agency’s. Below is my own humble assessment of how each agency* is doing on this front, based on their progress reports. For the sake of brevity, I’ve shortened environmental justice to “EJ.”
You want to pay attention to Interior because it houses the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). Both were created by President Obama in the aftermath of the BP oil disaster, when it was clear that the previous oversight agency for energy development, the Minerals Management System, had gone rogue. Still, there’s a lot in Interior’s latest progress report on how it has incorporated EJ into its Indian Affairs bureau, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but very little on the bureaus policing offshore oil drilling.
The report also boasts about a public-private partnership with American Eagle Outfitters (AEO), Inc., to help provide “100,000 work and training opportunities to young people and veterans on public lands.” I don’t know any youth of color that bangs with American Eagle like that, though. They might want to consider Timberland, Bathing Ape or Supreme. Either way, I’m all for young people getting outdoors so they can avoid Earl Sweatshirt syndrome. But when it comes to parks, and city parks in particular, young people need to know they can play and hang in these spaces without the threat of getting arrested, harassed, nabbed for crimes they didn’t commit, or getting shot by police. I didn’t hear anything from Interior on that.
The Justice Department has played a leading role in realizing EJ goals, alongside EPA, notably through litigation from its Environmental Natural Resources Division. The new U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has huge shoes to fill after the departure of her predecessor, Eric Holder. He had a personal EJ connection through his sister-in-law Vivian Malone (now deceased), who once served as EPA’s director of civil rights and urban affairs.
The enforcement of Civil Rights Act statutes on environmental matters has been less than stellar, but DOJ has been working with EPA to develop a more rigorous civil rights regime. The whole goal of civil rights is equal protection under the law, especially for people of color, so they’re gonna have to ramp up on this. Read more about DOJ’s EJ progress in this piece I wrote on Eric Holder’s departure last October.
The first head of Labor in the Obama Administration, Hilda Solis, is best known for helping create environmental justice legislation in California — the only major law on this issue in the nation. After stepping down in 2013, she was succeeded by Tom Perez, who previously served as the director of the Justice Department’s civil rights division. Both concentrated a lot of resources into helping the formerly incarcerated into the workforce, a huge, overlooked EJ issue.
Another way Labor has helped advance EJ causes is through its data collection. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, a treasure trove of data, recently began surveying companies to identify specific workplace risks, injuries, and illnesses aggregated by race and ethnicity. This is crucial. Government officials can’t produce EJ remedies if they don’t have data on where the injustices occur and who’s most impacted. Labor is also collecting data on women of color when it comes to wages, unemployment, and education levels. I wish that I had read about more data initiatives like this from the other agencies, but I didn’t.
One major shortcoming was that I couldn’t find anything on how Labor is addressing the paltry number of contracts and jobs for people of color offered by the federal government for disaster recoveries. It’s a problem that has to be addressed before the next major environmental disaster. People of color can’t continue to be the worst impacted in these circumstances and then get left out of restoration economies.
Transportation is well-regarded among EJ communities, mostly for its work in resolving civil rights complaints where people of color or low-income have been short-served by local transit and infrastructure decisions.
Still, the best way to help overburdened communities is to get cars and trucks off the streets. Vehicle emissions are among the biggest dangers to urban air quality and respiratory health. They also blast copious amounts of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. The current math that distributes more tax revenue to building highways than public transit helps reinforce these racial health and air quality inequities. Still, Transportation continues to work diligently on these matters, hosting webinars and conferences regularly to keep the public updated.
I found nothing but this statement from SBA on how it is still developing its plans, which is unacceptable, given that the bulk of minority entrepreneurs are small business owners. This is one area where the poverty suffered in EJ communities could probably be best addressed, through developing not just hourly wage workers, but also people who have their own businesses, giving them greater ownership in their communities. SBA will have to step its game up.
Public health is basically 50 percent of EJ, so this department is important. The National Institute of Environmental Health Science helped launch EJ as we know it in the federal government today. One of the telltale signs of a struggling EJ community is its lack of quality healthcare centers.
Judging by the department’s progress report, it is hitting most of its targets. Implementation of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, has gone far in helping deliver better insurance and healthcare facilities to people of color and low income, at least in the states that have accepted expansion of Medicaid. It has also helped in employing these populations to assist with that delivery. That employment program, called the Navigator system, has been quite effective in its outreach to beleaguered communities and their trusted institutions — we know this because it is one of the programs that conservatives attack the hardest.
Along with EPA and DOT, HUD forms the holy trinity of EJ. The three agencies are the nucleus of the Sustainable Communities program that has been seeking ways to synthesize planning decisions to promote affordability, walkability, and other environmental benefits.
HUD’s latest EJ progress report is one of the most detailed of its peers. It lists among its accomplishments improving energy efficiency through a collaboration with over 100 multifamily building owners and public housing authorities, an enhancement of its rule on affirmatively furthering fair housing (an EJ/civil rights staple concern), and hundreds of millions of dollars offered through grant programs like Choice Neighborhoods and Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes. Both of those grant programs have suffered from lack of funding thanks to austerity hawks in Congress.
One of its most promising programs is the National Disaster Resilience Competition, which is offering $1 billion targeted at areas most prone to climate-fueled disasters. There are questions about the selection process for these programs, though, and if funding truly is going to communities that need it the most. Many Sustainable Community grantees are not EJ communities. Sources in EPA tell me that officers for these programs have had little if any interaction with NEJAC. This is important because neighborhood improvement plans that lack EJ community leadership often lead to unfavorable gentrification outcomes. How else will EJ communities know that these programs aren’t just urban renewal dressed in fancier clothes?
This department is the lead agency for the annual State of Environmental Justice in America Conferences, which bring together EJ officials from all the agencies to appraise the work in this field.
The department’s progress report notes its growing partnerships with Minority Serving Institutions and Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which is critical because this is where you’ll find many of the future environmental scientists, engineers, activists, lawyers, and writers. These are also some of the most cash-strapped universities in the nation. The department has provided scholarships for these students, but not much — the report lists just $300,000 in 2012. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the $25 million the Koch Brothers are giving to the United Negro College Fund. I know funding is going to be an issue whenever you have someone like Ted Cruz heading the Senate’s science committee, but it’s going to take some creative financing to counteract Koch’s generosity.
The College/Underserved-Communities Partnership Program (CUPP) is one excellent initiative that Energy has helped along by providing stipends for its students. If the federal government doesn’t claim more students like this, there are plenty of fossil-fuel-rich sugar daddies who will.
One other area EJ communities could use help with is better access to solar and renewable energy. It’s yet another area ripe for exploitation by fossil fuel interests, who will prey on black and Latino communities by trying to convince them that solar is not in their best interests. But the EJ issue most families face monthly surfaces on their electric bills. This department should shore up its outreach to families in helping them understand the true costs of energy schemes like carbon capture and sequestration. The Energy department could also be more aggressive in guiding them toward renewable energy opportunities, and also funding budding community solar array systems that can better ensure clean energy affordability for all.
This is one of the few departments that clearly details in its progress report how it has integrating environmental justice into all of its programs, not just a few. Through integrative approaches, you make everyone — white and black, rich and poor, high rank and rank-and-file — think through these things rather than placing it in an EJ compartment, or ghetto, where only officials with “environmental justice” in their title have to think about it. The downside to this approach is results often get buried if there’s not an “environmental justice”-in-name program in place. Yet still, this approach is probably, in my opinion, the truest approach to the spirit of the federal executive order and the spirit of environmental justice in general.
The results, however, have been modest. The USDA’s Farmers Market Promotion Program directed a third of its $9 million in grant funds to areas with food deserts, and the report provides a breakdown of how those awards were distributed by race. USDA’s Food Desert Locator and Food Access Research Atlas are food justice tools that provide demographic data about residents with limited access to affordable and nutritious foods. The agency’s work on this front has been made most visible through its association with First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative.
One huge black eye is that the USDA’s progress report doesn’t mention the problems it has caused for black farmers who were refused federal farm loans, and lost land and crops, if not their farms altogether, in the process. Grist Fellow Madeleine Thomas posted an excellent interview with one of those farmers recently that elaborates on this problem. Hip farmers markets are trending across cities, but USDA has to answer for decades of discrimination, a blatant environmental injustice if ever there was one.
(* The report card above does not reflect a full examination of all 17 agencies, only a shortlist of agencies that EJ communities come in frequent contact with, and that can fit in the blog space!)
Get Grist in your inbox