EPA’s Environmental Justice Tour

Matt Purple Fellow, Defense Priorities
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The Environmental Protection Agency has had a busy year. The agency’s regulatory shop seems to crack down on a new greenhouse gas every week in the name of fighting climate change. But despite its full plate, the EPA has still found time to link up with the Congressional Black Caucus for something called an “Environmental Justice Tour.”

The tour has whisked EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and several black legislators around the country to impoverished and predominantly minority communities. There, they’ve confronted and addressed everything from toxic waste disposal to water quality problems.

“By meeting people where they are and talking to them about the challenges they face, we can broadly expand the conversation on environmentalism,” said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in a press release earlier this year.

The tour is based on the idea that “underserved communities” and “communities of color” are disproportionately affected by environmental damage and climate change, according to the EPA.

The latest stop on the tour was at the NAACP convention in Kansas City, Miss., last weekend. There, Jackson addressed the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and called for more “empowerment” and a “community based…restoration plan for the Gulf.”

The same NAACP convention made national headlines after it unanimously passed a resolution condemning racism in the Tea Party movement.

Prior to that, the environmental justice tour made stops in Mississippi and South Carolina. In Mississippi, Jackson attended an environmental justice conference and toured a local water treatment plant. In South Carolina, she announced $1.4 million in brownfield funds and toured a Superfund toxic waste site.

“Her visit is evidence of the Obama administration’s commitment to ensuring that minority communities who have suffered disproportionately from poor air quality, contaminated drinking water, and industrial pollution receive the resources they need to remediate these conditions and meet future challenges,” said House Majority Whip James Clyburn, of South Carolina, in a press release.

The EPA is also doling out taxpayer money in grants to environmental justice groups.

This year, the EPA expects to award about $1,000,000 in such grants. Last year, the agency distributed $800,000. One grant went to Denver, Colo., to help educate poor Latinos on reducing their energy use. Another went to Providence, R.I., to fund public service announcement videos made by young people. The PSAs warned of the health dangers from household cleaning products and how unrecycled trash worsens conditions in low-income areas.

Several studies have found that the effects of climate change and environmental degradation disproportionately affect minorities. One study done by the University of Southern California found that minorities are twice as likely to die from heat wave-related causes. All this has led many scientists to speculate about a “climate gap” between low-income minority communities and wealthier Americans.

But the EPA’s stringent restrictions on greenhouse gases aren’t necessarily the answer. A study by the Affordable Power Alliance found that new EPA regulations will also disproportionately affect minorities. Greenhouse gas crackdowns will increase the poverty rate for African Americans from 24% to around 30% by 2025 and cost African Americans 390,000 jobs by 2030, among other findings.

Another study by the National Black Chamber of Commerce found that Democrats’ cap-and-trade bill would destroy 2.5 million jobs a year and lower wages by $400 annually.

The environmental justice movement was born in the 1980s out of concern that minorities and the poor were being excluded from the environmental movement. In 1990, the Congressional Black Caucus led a delegation to the EPA to discuss concerns about environmental justice.

The EPA was all ears. Two years later, Bill Clinton’s EPA Administrator, Carol Browner, established the EPA Office of Environmental Justice. The office seeks to ensure “everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”

Browner now advises President Obama as his energy czar.

Jackson has been particularly dedicated to revamping the Office of Environmental Justice, after what she views as its decline under the last Bush administration. She brought in a senior advisor on environmental justice and an attorney to wrangle with civil rights issues that relate to the environment.

“[I]n decision-making, in policymaking, we [must] give consideration to make sure that those who are poor, those who are already disproportionately impacted for whatever set of reasons, aren’t being asked to accept an additional share of environmental burden because it’s easier or because they’re disenfranchised,” Jackson said in an interview with GristTV.

Future stops on the EPA’s Environmental Justice Tour this year include Maryland and Georgia.