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New head of EPA office of environmental justice says they're putting civil rights into agency's DNA

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Myrtle Felton, from left, Sharon Lavigne, Gail LeBoeuf and Rita Cooper, members of RISE St. James, conduct a live stream video on property owned by Formosa on March 11, 2020, in St. James Parish, La. The Environmental Protection Agency said it has evidence that Black residents in an industrial section of Louisiana face an increased risk of cancer from a nearby chemical plant and that state officials have allowed air pollution to remain high and downplayed its threat. (Gerald Herbert/AP)
Myrtle Felton, from left, Sharon Lavigne, Gail LeBoeuf and Rita Cooper, members of RISE St. James, conduct a live stream video on property owned by Formosa on March 11, 2020, in St. James Parish, La. The Environmental Protection Agency said it has evidence that Black residents in an industrial section of Louisiana face an increased risk of cancer from a nearby chemical plant and that state officials have allowed air pollution to remain high and downplayed its threat. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

Activists in Florida say that communities of color are not receiving the aid they need in the wake of Hurricane Ian, and that’s nothing new.

Studies show that poor and Black communities have historically fared worse than white communities after disasters, and people of color are also more likely to live in areas of environmental contamination.

In 1983, the Government Accountability Office found three out of four hazardous waste landfill sites were in communities of color. And in 1987, the United Church of Christ released a landmark report on racial justice showing race to be the biggest predictor of where hazardous waste facilities were located.

So the announcement last month of a new Office of Environmental Justice and Civil Rights by Environmental Protection Agency head Michael Regan was received with excitement, but also skepticism. Marianne Engelman-Lado is among those named to head the agency as acting deputy principal administrator of the new office.

Despite decades of evidence mounting on the issue of environmental justice, exceptionally little has been done to remedy the malady. Engelman-Lado punctuates the frustration and distrust that she and affected communities feel.

“There are some communities that have a concentration of polluting sources,” she says. “These communities are disproportionately communities of color, Indigenous communities and low-income white communities.”

Past administrations have broached the topic and the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice was first established in the early 1990’s. But still today, race and class are strong determining factors for poor environmental health and, consequently, poor personal and community health.

Inaction has had severe implications for populations stricken with high levels of cancer, disproportionately affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic due to systemic respiratory issues, or coping with any number of other afflictions.

Engelman-Lado has harbored her own skepticism in the past.

“EPA has been criticized time and again for needing a more robust civil rights program,” she says.

In her time as an attorney, she sued the agency for its failures in the environmental justice realm and condemned the agency’s insufficient action on civil rights in her 2019 paper “No More Excuses: Building A New Vision of Civil Rights Enforcement in the Context of Environmental Justice.”

“More than 50 years after the passage of Title VI … civil rights rights enforcement in the environmental context has languished,” Engelman-Lado says. Engelman-Lado is confident that the agency will now address those needs.

“From day one, the president signed the executive orders that called on all agencies to commit themselves to pursuing equity and to integrating equity, environmental justice and civil rights in all that we do,” Engelman-Lado says. “The administrator, Michael Regan, has charged us with not only strengthening environmental justice and civil rights, but building it in, as he would say, into the DNA of the agency.”

Funding and action are key parts of that process; the EPA is incorporating new guidance documents “to make clear” its standards on transparency, says Engelman-Lato. The agency is committed to working with states and other local entities, she says, and has received $3 billion towards environmental justice block grants as a part of the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act.

According to the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works, these grants will support “tribes and municipalities and a community-based nonprofit organization for financial and technical assistance to address clean air and climate pollution in disadvantaged communities.” Despite warranted skepticism, Engelman-Lado is confident that these initiatives will be meaningful to the EPA’s new goals and says recipients should be given leeway to decide how to use funds they’re given, acknowledging that “communities know best what they need.”


Karyn Miller Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe Bullard. Devin Speak adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on October 18, 2022.

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