Pollution is not a problem faced equally by everyone in our society. Minorities and low-income communities often face higher exposure to environmental hazards by living near waste sites, by being subjected to harmful chemicals in poorly maintained housing, or through exposure to pesticides in farm fields. In light of the growing importance of this issue, a national policy of environmental justice (the distribution of environmental risks across population and income groups, and the policy responses to these distributions) needs to be articulated.
Environmental justice is not a new problem. It was first reported more than two decades ago. The problem of environmental justice did not receive national attention until 1982, however, when officials decided to locate a toxic chemical landfill in predominantly African- American Warren County, North Carolina. Protests similar to those of the civil rights movements of the 1960s erupted. In response to these protests, the General Accounting Office (GAO) investigated, focusing on the socioeconomic and racial composition of communities surrounding the four major hazardous waste landfills in the South. GAO concluded that three of the four landfills were located in communities that were predominantly African-American.
Since then environmental justice has received more attention. A nationwide study in 1987 found that the proportion of minorities in communities that have a commercial hazardous waste facility is about double that in communities without such facilities. In 1990, the Michigan Conference on Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards was convened. In response to the Michigan conference's findings that no public policies were in place to require monitoring equity in the distribution of environmental quality, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established a working group on environmental equity.
In a June 1992 report, the working group determined that there was a general lack of information concerning pollution and minority and low-income communities. There were indications of problems in siting and enforcement of pollution-generating activities in minority and low-income communities. The group concluded that EPA had no specific policy dealing with this issue. In response, EPA established the Office of Environmental Equity to focus on three major areas: education and outreach; community and economic development; and technical and financial assistance to community groups. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), adopted in 1970, sets forth an environmental policy for the nation. Specifically, NEPA states that: it is the continuing policy of the federal government, in cooperation with State and local governments, and other concerned public and private organizations, to use all practicable means and measures, including financial and technical assistance, in a manner calculated to foster and promote the general welfare, to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.(1)
In her statement before the House Government Operations Committee on May 6, 1993, Administrator Browner affirmed the need to address environmental justice: as we undertake programs to reduce risks, we must explicitly recognize the ethnic, economic, and cultural makeup of the people we are trying to protect. We now believe that people of color and low income are disproportionately affected by some environmental risks: the risk of living near landfills, municipal waste combustors, or hazardous waste sites; the risks posed by lead or asbestos in old, poorly maintained housing; the risk of exposure to pesticides in farm fields; and the risk of eating contaminated fish when fish is a mainstay of their diet.(2)
There are large environmentally related health costs and other concerns associated with minority workers and low-income communities. For example, studies have shown that migrant farm workers suffer from neurological disorders, cancer, and birth defects at a higher rate than the normal population. Another example is exposure to lead. EPA has stated that lead in paint and lead dust are major causes of poisoning in young children. Although there have been no definitive studies on the overall health costs to minority workers and low- income communities, there is general agreement that related health care costs could be quite high. While minority and low-income communities inordinately suffer the effects of environmental hazards, all U.S. taxpayers asorb the additional health costs incurred.
Administrator Browner has made environmental equity a key policy theme in her administration. The President's fiscal year 1994 budget contains an additional $15 million to address lead paint hazards, a particular hazard for minority children. The administrator has moved to establish an interagency group to address environmental justice issues across all federal agencies. EPA is working with federal health agencies to strengthen the scientific and health effects data related to communities of color and those of low income, and EPA has initiated three environmental justice projects with the Department of Justice, one of which will be used to establish enforcement priorities.
Congress has also shown a strong interest in environmental justice. In pending EPA cabinet legislation-- H.R. 3425, introduced by Representative Conyers (D-MI)-- there are numerous provisions regarding environmental justice. In May 1993, Representative Lewis (D-GA) introduced H.R. 2105, the Environmental Justice Act of 1993. This bill would require EPA to publish a list of geographic areas with the highest amounts of toxic chemicals. It would require EPA to inspect all toxic chemical facilities operating in Environmentally High Impact Areas (EHIAs) and impose a moratorium on the siting of new chemical facilities in EHIAs. On June 24, 1993, Senator Baucus introduced Senate Bill 1161, the Environmental Justice Act of 1993, which generally parallels the House bill.
While the environmental justice movement gains momentum, a new awareness permeates the environmental community. There exist differing views on prioritizing efforts. EPA is taking action, and more needs to be done.
Environmental justice will be fully reflected in EPA
2. EPA should prepare an annual report providing analysis of the progress it has made regarding environmental justice and should develop appropriate remedies for communities that have suffered environmental injustice.
Pending legislation to elevate EPA to Cabinet status, proposed environmental justice legislation, and a proposed environmental justice Executive Order will significantly affect this program. The environmental justice movement is gaining momentum. Proposed environmental justice legislation and the expected Executive Order will require some , facilitate other , and encourage other behaviors.
This proposal is cost-neutral. EPA would need an additional five employees to carry out the proposed environmental justice activities. This additional staff will be allocated from existing personnel. It is reasonable to expect some long-term reduction in health costs in low-income and minority communities as the environmental quality of their communities improves; however, this impact cannot be estimated at this time.
1. Public Law 91-190, 42 USC 4321-4347 (January 1, 1970).
2. U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Governmental Affairs, testimony by EPA Administrator Carol Browner, May 6, 1993.
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