Given how President Donald Trump has taken aim at the Environmental Protection Agency with regulatory rollbacks and deep proposed budget cuts, it may come as no surprise that the Office of Environmental Justice is on the chopping block.
This tiny corner of the EPA was established 24 years ago to advocate for minorities and the poor, populations most likely to face the consequences of pollution and least able to advocate for themselves.
It does so by acting as a middleman, connecting vulnerable communities with those who can help them. It heads a group that advises EPA officials about injustices and another that brings together representatives from other federal agencies and the White House to swap proposals.
When it works, all the talk leads to grants, policies and programs that change lives.
In the Arkwright and Forest Park communities in Spartanburg, South Carolina, residents were living near contaminated industrial sites and a landfill — and dying of respiratory illnesses and cancer at extraordinary rates. They used a $20,000 environmental justice grant from the EPA as seed money to form partnerships with local businesses and government agencies. Those alliances, in turn, helped bring more than $250 million in infrastructure, community health centers, affordable housing, environmental cleanups and job training to the area.
Trump’s budget proposal would effectively eliminate the office and the $2 million it takes to operate it. An EPA spokesperson suggested in a statement that the agency doesn’t need a special arm devoted to environmental justice to continue this work.
“Environmental justice is an important role for all our program offices, in addition to being a requirement in all rules EPA issues,” the statement said. “We will work with Congress to help develop and implement programs and continue to work within the Agency to evaluate new ideas to properly address environmental justice issues on an agency-wide basis.“
In theory, this is right. Federal agencies are required to consider the impacts of environmental and health-related decisions on the poor and minorities anyway — President Bill Clinton mandated they do so in an executive order. But, in practice, that order was vague and didn’t carry the force of law, leaving each president to decide how little, or how much, to do.
Now, with the Office of Environmental Justice’s fate in doubt, it’s become achingly apparent that well before Trump, those who purported to champion environmental justice — primarily Democratic legislators and presidents — did little to codify the progress and programs related to it, even when they were best positioned politically to do so.
“We haven’t done enough,” acknowledged Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Booker and other Democrats are racing to file bills that save the Office of Environmental Justice and similar initiatives on an emergency basis, though they know they have little chance of success.
“There’s no time like the present for doing what is right,” Booker said. “We can’t wait.”
The concept of environmental justice began bubbling up toward the end of the civil rights movement. But it wasn’t until 1982 that it began to really take hold.
That’s when residents in the town of Afton in Warren County, North Carolina, mounted mass demonstrations against a landfill where the state planned to dump contaminated soil. The dirt was laced with toxins called polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, a now-banned substance that even then, the EPA knew to cause birth defects and potentially cancer.
“We know why they picked us,” the Rev. Luther G. Brown, pastor of Coley Springs Baptist Church, said at the time. “It’s because it’s a poor county — poor politically, poor in health, poor in education and because it’s mostly black. Nobody thought people like us would make a fuss.”
The protests and subsequent lawsuits didn’t stop the landfill; in the years since, the site has actually expanded. But the uproar was enough to spark Congress’ attention.
In 1983, a government report found that three of the four landfills it examined were located in some of the region’s poorest or predominantly black communities. In 1987, a more expansive survey by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice found that nationally, hazardous waste facilities were more likely to be located in predominantly minority communities.
“These were invisible problems in invisible communities until they organized themselves and started to have their own dialogue with EPA,” said Vernice Miller-Travis, a former member of the advisory council convened by the Office of Environmental Justice.
Pressure was mounting for the government to act.
In 1990, the EPA took a look at its policies, for the first time examining environmental risks through the lens of race and class. It issued a report in 1992 that found that “EPA should give more explicit attention to environmental equity issues,” collect better data, revise its enforcement and permitting programs, and communicate more with communities of color.
It’s worth noting, this was a hot moment in American politics. President George H.W. Bush, a Republican, was defending his place in the White House against a young Democratic governor named Bill Clinton. The tenor of the debate was radically different from the most recent election; these candidates argued over who was a better environmentalist.
Bush announced the creation of the Office of Environmental Equity, which would evolve into today’s Office of Environmental Justice. Its purpose in the 1990s was the same as it is today: Listen to communities, get their concerns in front of policymakers, funnel grant money into local projects. “We have been negligent,” Clarice Gaylord, the office’s first director told the St. Petersburg Times. “Now we will have to focus more on how we affect people.”
Bush lost the election, but his replacement pushed forward on environmental justice, moving the mission beyond that one EPA office.
Clinton signed an executive order in 1994 requiring federal agencies to consider environmental justice in all of their policies. He established policies that would allow people the right to participate in decisions that impacted them and ordered an analysis of health and environmental impacts for projects seeking federal permits. He also declared environmental injustice a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act — the same law that sought to end segregation in schools. Now, communities could ask the EPA to investigate environmental discrimination. EPA could strip violators of funding until they got in line.
“I think it’s important for people to understand that this is a first step,” EPA Administrator Carol Browner said at the time. “There are many, many more steps to come if we are really going to address the problems that these communities are raising.”
In hindsight, this might have been the time to take additional steps.
For the first six years, lawyers were unclear on exactly how much power the executive order gave the EPA to enforce environmental justice via existing laws, like the Clean Air Act. A legal opinion eventually resolved that issue, but a broader problem remained: The executive order was more of a philosophical guide than a rigid list of requirements. Some have wondered, looking back, whether the language directing administrations to enforce environmental justice “to the greatest extent practicable” could have been stronger or more specific.
Those invested in environmental justice would soon learn just how much rode on the sitting president.
George W. Bush didn’t approach environmental issues like his father.
In addition to walking back arsenic standards for drinking water and refusing to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, the younger Bush’s administration began to erode environmental justice programs.
Clinton’s executive order required every federal agency to consider the health and environmental impacts policies had on minority and low-income communities. Under Bush, the focus shifted to ensuring protections for “all people.” The EPA inspector general rebuked that position in a 2004 report, saying that reversing the emphasis on vulnerable communities had led to confusion, a lack of consistency and “return[ed] the Agency to pre-Executive Order status.”
In 2006, the inspector general found that the EPA wasn’t conducting environmental justice reviews of its policies and programs, nor had it developed a framework to do so. The EPA office charged with policing environmental discrimination ground to a halt, amassing a backlog that stretched for a decade.
The weakness of the executive order prompted Democratic legislators to sponsor bills almost every year to legally establish the advisory groups created under the executive order, force the EPA to abide by the IG report recommendations, and give citizens the right to sue under Title VI for environmental discrimination. The bills were often championed by Democratic heavyweights — Sens. John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, and Reps. Hilda Solis and Mark Udall — but even when Democrats held the most power in Congress, they never came close to passing.
“There’s not been an environmental justice bill that’s ever been put to a floor vote,” said Albert Huang, director of environmental justice at the National Resources Defense Council.
“Politically, it’s a very attractive issue to introduce legislation around because it threads so many needles: civil rights, environment, social justice, low-income — so many issues,” said Huang. “But for those same reasons, it’s a lightning rod for moderates and conservatives because those issues are viewed as the most progressive and liberal of each of those topics.”
By 2007, it was becoming clear that the promise of environmental justice was stalled. The United Church of Christ updated its toxic waste report and found that 20 years later, little had changed.
Then, Barack Obama was elected. He’d promised in his campaign to “resurrect” civic environmental responsibility and to prioritize remediation efforts in “neglected communities so that living daily with extreme environmental pollution and health risks will be a condition of the past.”
His administration raised the profile of the Office of Environmental Justice, audited the Office of Civil Rights and eliminated a backlog of cases against polluters (though it drew criticism from those who said it hadn’t done enough).
It also took a laundry list of other incremental steps: developed strategic plans for environmental justice and enforcing civil rights, issued a case-resolution manual to guide investigations, and created a compliance toolkit to help state agencies stay within the bounds of the law. The administration added a senior adviser for environmental justice, who participated in high-level meetings at the EPA and advocated for vulnerable communities in major budget and policy decisions.
But the Obama years also featured plenty of missed opportunities.