Environmental justice campaigners in the United States have been feeling hopeful as President Joe Biden signs a string of executive orders to begin setting his climate program in motion. But more trust-building is needed, say observers—particularly after a long history of politicians talking big but delivering little.
From the refineries of Louisiana to the industrial hog farms of North Carolina and leaky pipelines of North Dakota, “disproportionate exposure to pollution” has long threatened communities of colour and the poor, with the U.S. government doing next to nothing to help, writes National Public Radio (NPR).
In a flurry of executive orders, Biden has seemingly broken with his predecessors: one order will create a White House environmental justice council, and another pledges that “40% of the benefits from federal investments in clean energy and clean water would go to communities that bear disproportionate pollution.”
And there are early signs these actions are being taken in good faith. “Biden’s nominee to run the EPA, Michael Regan, would be the first Black man to lead the agency, and top positions in other agencies and within the White House are being filled by people who have spent their careers working on equitable climate and environmental policies,” NPR writes.
Regan, currently head of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, has direct experience with the pressing issues at hand, after growing up in the shadow of a coal-burning power plant. But his toolkit may still be limited: while Regan’s appointment speaks to a prioritization of environmental justice, warns policy expert David Konisky, a professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University, “current environmental laws do not require it to craft policies to address unequal pollution burdens, and in some cases they make it difficult to do so.”
But these limits by no means leave agency officials without recourse. “EPA officials can advance environmental justice immediately by striving for inclusive decision-making,” Konisky writes. “This means not just listening to people of colour and other communities suffering from pollution burdens, but empowering them to be involved in decisions that affect their lives.”
And while “federal and state agencies conduct fewer inspections and impose lighter penalties when offending pollution sources are located in low-income neighbourhoods and communities of colour,” he adds, increasing the number of inspections and the level of enforcement requires nothing more than the commitment to do so. All it would take is for the EPA to “coordinate its enforcement efforts with the U.S. Department of Justice, which is responsible for prosecuting cases.”
The EPA could also act now to break with its longstanding neglect of a provision in the 1964 Civil Rights Act that would give the agency some teeth, if it were willing to use them. Title VI already prohibits federally-funded organizations from discriminating against protected groups—a provision that extends to “state and local agencies that issue permits and carry out other activities to implement federal pollution control laws,” says Konisky. That means the EPA would only need to “promptly and fairly” handle any claims of industry or regulators disproportionately harming vulnerable communities.
The last piece of Konisky’s EPA empowerment puzzle is to “make it routine practice to consider environmental justice in its rulemaking.” But Mustafa Santiago Ali, who ran the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice under former president Barack Obama, told NPR that faith in that level of justice has, to date, rarely been redeemed.
“Trust has been broken,” he said. “For communities, especially vulnerable communities, there have been so many broken promises over the years.”
Tracing just one thread in a generations-long string of betrayals, NPR describes how, in the early 1980s, North Carolina authorities went ahead with a toxic waste dump despite protests so large they grabbed national headlines.
The outcry, boosted by a “flurry of studies and testimonies” revealing clear evidence that Black and Latino/Latina people had much higher chances of living near a source of toxic pollution, led then-president Bill Clinton to sign a 1994 order on environmental justice “designed to push federal bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department to think explicitly about the health of historically marginalized people as they created and enforced pollution and land use regulations.”
But the harvest of those seeds was small and, for those most affected, bitter as well. NPR writes that pollution disparities “have barely budged” in the nearly 30 years since Clinton signed his order, and subsequent studies showed that the sites prioritized for cleanup are often not the ones near the targeted communities.
“Although the phrase ‘environmental justice’ had gone mainstream in the years since the Clinton order, many people living in polluted communities felt the federal government’s efforts were not serving them, despite renewed focus by the Obama administration,” explained a 2014 study from Texas Southern University. And that was before the arrival of Trump.
Biden must do better, said Suzi Ruhl, who served on the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice during the Obama administration. While it “bodes well” that the new administration’s environmental justice council has already been instructed to update Clinton’s 1994 executive order, she told NPR she “hopes to see much more dramatic action from the administration in the near future, including providing money to help communities deal with the double whammy of the pandemic and chronic pollution.”
Vice President Kamala Harris had, in fact, already initiated such action when she was a senator. Sponsored by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and others, the new law “would establish a legal demographic definition for low-income communities and communities of colour, and allow those communities to sue the government over disproportionate pollution.” If enacted, the law will be more binding than a presidential order, as future governments “couldn’t unilaterally remove it,” explains NPR.
In related news, St. Louis Public Radio writes that two elected Democrats—Missouri Congresswoman Cori Bush and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey—are teaming up to propose legislation that would fund the interactive mapping of key environmental issues like air and water pollution in order to better direct resources and solutions. The tool is intended to support Biden’s promise to deliver real money to deliver real benefits to low-income and minority communities.
Civic engagement at the state level will be critical to advancing the cause of environmental justice in the United States, writes Energy News Network. ENN points to the Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice, which brings together 21 members representing “water, energy, tribes, low-income communities, organized labour, and industry” to advise Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
Last year, the council supported Whitmer’s use of an executive order to shut down the Line 5 pipeline that runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac. “We’ve seen major influence coming from our table that not only guided but emboldened the governor to make decisions that she wouldn’t have otherwise had the backing to make,” council member Monica Lewis-Patrick told Energy News Network.