Can social justice be achieved (at least partially) through the advancement of environmental stewardship? Both the executive branch of the federal government and a number of local community outreach organizations across the country believe it’s certainly an effective avenue to take when working to ensure our nation’s communities have equal input into the policy proposals that impact our natural surroundings.
One of those organizations is the Eden Place Nature Center in Chicago, which received accolades from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2004 for its creative use of natural landscaping to support the native wildlife that contributes to the region’s biodiversity. In the most recent Ecologist Goes to Washington podcast, ESA Graduate Student Policy Award winner Kellen Marshall-Gillespie speaks about her experiences working on ecological issues within the Eden Place Nature Center as she pursues her Ph.D. at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
EPA defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” The term arose in the 1980s when racial minority communities raised concerns that they were disproportionately impacted by the effects of industrial pollution. There were also concerns in these communities that mainstream environmental organizations were not prioritizing issues related to environmental justice, concerns that would finally earn a federal response in the coming decade.
According to the EPA, at the behest of the Congressional Black Caucus and a bipartisan coalition of scientists and conservation activists, the agency created the Environmental Equity Working group in 1990 to address these concerns. In 1992, the working group issued a final report entitled “Reducing Risk in All Communities.”
Among its findings, the report noted that due to exposures to environmental pollutants, black children have a disproportionately higher lead blood levels compared to whites, even when socioeconomic variables are considered. It also cited findings from the Argonne National Laboratory, indicating that “higher percentages of blacks and Hispanics live in EPA-designated non-attainment areas, relative to whites, for particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide and lead.” (A non-attainment area is defined as a locality where air pollution levels persistently, over several years, exceed National Ambient Air Quality Standards as defined under the Clean Air Act of 1990). The report also attributed the “not in my backyard” syndrome as the reason many hazardous and solid waste facilities are positioned near communities with the least ability to mount a protest.
On February 11, 1994, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, entitled “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low‐Income Populations” (EO 12898). It directs each federal agency to “make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low‐income populations.”
EO 12898 also established the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (EJ IWG), comprised of all the heads of federal agencies with jurisdiction of environmental and socioeconomic development issues, including the Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Agriculture, Transportation, Justice, Interior, Commerce, Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Office of the Deputy Assistant to the President for Environmental Policy, the Office of the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, the National Economic Council and the Council of Economic Advisers.
On September 22, 2010, after the EJ IWG had been inactive for a decade, the Obama administration, through EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair, Nancy Sutley, reconvened the EJ IWG for a meeting at the White House. This was followed by an online forum that aimed to highlight the administration’s efforts on environmental justice issues.
EPA continually publishes upcoming meetings of the working group on its website. The agency has also issued a draft implementation plan to incorporate environmental justice priorities into its daily activities. The goals of the plan seek to 1) incorporate environmental justice into EPA rule-makings and compliance enforcement, 2) provide funding and technical support to community-based programs that seek to protect human health and the environment in under-served communities and 3) foster increased collaboration among federal agencies as well as all levels of government to engage more effectively with stakeholders in order to address issues in environmental justice.
These initiatives have the potential to help advance environmental awareness and reduce healthcare costs of treating preventable environmentally acquired illnesses. In addition, the green jobs they foster hold promise for our nation’s communities.
Photo Credit (Nancy Sutley): White House
Photo Credit (Kellen Marshall): ESA file photo