Tempers Flare at Environmental Justice Conference
Fair Use Statement
Tempers Flare at Environmental Justice Conference
By Brian Hansen
ARLINGTON, Virginia, December 12, 2000 (ENS) - Members of a
federal government advisory panel today lambasted President Bill
Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency for failing to aggressively combat the scourge of
"environmental racism" that they maintain is afflicting many poor
communities and communities of color.
The charges were leveled by
members of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council
(NEJAC), a stakeholder group established to advise the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) on strategies to curtail the
disproportionately high numbers of polluting industries and toxic
waste sites often found in minority and low income communities.
The charges came as the 26 member NEJAC board met with EPA
officials in Arlington, Virginia, this week to discuss the agency's soon
to be released environmental justice guidance document.
Luke Cole, a civil rights and environmental law
attorney with the California based Center on
Race, Poverty & the Environment, was one of
many NEJAC board members to criticize the
EPA for the way the agency went about
drafting its forthcoming environmental justice
guidance document. Cole complained that the still secret document
was drafted by high ranking EPA officials who "completely ignored"
the recommendations of the NEJAC panel, which was established
through an executive order signed by President Clinton in 1994.
Cole and other NEJAC members did not hesitate in voicing their
frustrations over the process to Barry Hill, director of the EPA's
environmental justice division. Cole lashed out at Hill and other EPA
officials for "meeting behind closed doors" to draft the environmental
justice document, and for treating the 26 member NEJAC board like
"window dressing" to a problem that the agency is paying only "lip
"It only reinforces the idea that EPA is not responsive to the concept
of environmental justice," an agitated Cole said to Hill.
Hill, who appeared to be visibly shaken by the allegation, attempted
to reply to Cole's charge. But Cole shouted down the EPA official,
saying, "I do not want to hear your response."
But Hill, who had grown noticably angry during the exchange, would
not be silenced. He sternly poked his index finger at Cole, saying, "I'm
going to give you my response."
Hill emphasized that the EPA's forthcoming environmental justice
guidance document was not intended to be an "environmental
decision," which he said would have required the input of the NEJAC
board and other relevant stakeholders. The guidance document, Hill
said, was only intended to provide a broad framework for dealing with
environmental justice issues.
But Hill's explanation was not good enough for other members of the
NEJAC board, including Vernice Miller-Travis, who coordinates a Ford
Foundation environmental justice program in the state of New York.
"I represent my community, and I don't want my name on [an EPA
document] if it's going to be working against my community,"
Miller-Travis said to Hill. "There's a profound contradiction between
what you say to the country and what you say to us" on the subject
of environmental justice.
NEJAC board member Rosa Hilda Ramos was also quick to criticize Hill
for ignoring the input of the environmental justice advisory board.
Ramos represents the 36,000 people living in the Puerto Rican town
of Catano, an economically disadvantaged community saddled with a
disproportionately high concentration of industrial wastes and
"Commenting at the end of the process is not real community
participation," Ramos said.
Hill and other EPA officials tried to move beyond the testy exchange
with the NEJAC board members by yielding the floor to Tony
Guadagno, an attorney with the EPA's Office of General Counsel.
Guadagno unveiled a 14 page memorandum that the EPA drafted in
order to highlight the various statutory and regulatory remedies
available for redressing matters pertaining to environmental justice.
But the memo only drew more catcalls
from the NEJAC board. Cole, in a
sarcastic tone, said that he was "very
excited that in the waning hours of the
Clinton administration that [EPA] finally
managed" to compile a list of strategies
to combat matters of environmental
racism. Cole's remark evoked a series of audible groans from the
audience, which was comprised of EPA officials, environmental
activists and industry representatives from throughout the country.
But Cole's point was echoed by a host of others on the NEJAC board,
including Miller-Travis, who noted that the EPA's environmental
justice enforcement document had been reduced from 54 to only 14
"There's a lot that's not in there," Miller-Travis said of the EPA's
memo. Miller-Travis was also upset that the EPA incorporated a type
of "disclaimer" into the document, which she said gave federal
agencies an "out" from actually having to use the nation's civil rights
and environmental laws to prosecute environmental justice cases.
That segued nicely into the meeting's keynote address, which was
entitled, "Missed Opportunities in Environmental Laws." The address
was delivered by Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers
Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Arnwine's remarks revolved around Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of
1964, which prohibits recipients of federal monies from discriminating
on the basis of race, color, or national origin in their programs or
activities. Title VI has long been used by environmental justice
advocates as a tool to address specific instances of environmental
racism in federally funded programs.
Arnwine applauded the EPA for creating an office of environmental
justice, saying that its mere existence shows that the issue is
important to the agency.
But Arnwine told ENS that the EPA has "not been as proactive as it
could have been in using existing laws to protect minority
communities from environmental racism." Nor has the agency
effectively used the courts to promote a better understanding of the
concept of environmental justice, Arnwine added.
"EPA has failed miserably in that regard," Arnwine said, adding that
the same can be said for the Department of Defense, the Energy
Department, and a host of other federal agencies.
Program Manager for Chemical Demilitarization)
Arnwine said that the EPA's failure to
prosecute environmental justice cases is
an "imbalance that you don't find
anywhere else in the federal sector." She
noted that the Department of Housing and
Urban Development (HUD) is frequently a
plaintiff in the nation's court system, filing
suits to enforce fair housing laws. The
opposite is true for the EPA she said,
noting that the agency is frequently a
defendant accused of violating the
nation's environmental laws.
"That's very telling," she said. "It shows a real lack of a proactive,
affirmative analysis of how to use environmental justice concepts in
Arnwine's point was echoed by Cole, who called the EPA's
performance on environmental justice issues "disastrous."
"There are many smart, well intentioned EPA staffers focused on this
issue, but the agency is really just paying lip service to the idea, and
not actually making it happen on the ground," Cole said.
Cole noted that of the more than 100 Title VI environmental justice
complaints that have been filed since 1993, only one has been
decided on the merits. The plaintiff lost that case, Cole noted.
"But the vast majority of cases are plaintiffs versus the EPA, not EPA
versus the bad guys," Cole added. "That's very instructive
Asked about how the outcome of the still undecided presidential
election would effect the enforcement of the prosecution of
environmental justice cases, Cole said, "We've had eight years of
disaster under Clinton. It's going to be a worse disaster under [Texas
Governor George W.] Bush, but it certainly wouldn't be rosy under
[Vice President Al] Gore."
The impetus for environmental
justice comes from the 'EJ movement,' not the federal government,"
Cole said. "The EPA has been dragged kicking and screaming into this
every step of the way, so on one level, it doesn't matter who's in
For more information on the EPA's office of environmental justice, log
on to: http://es.epa.gov/oeca/main/ej.
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