EPA conference on environmental justice brings attention to Detroit
Published: August 31, 2011
"For the first time ever, the EPA is listening and that door is open. We need to take advantage of that," Wasserman says. But she also said it could do more. "I think we have a responsibility as community folks to make sure we're holding the EPA accountable."
To prevent and punish environmental injustices, the EPA and state agencies have at their disposal Title VI of federal civil rights law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex and ethnicity by any agency receiving federal funds. The EPA can deny permits, for example, if a polluter is going to have a disparate impact on a community of color.
"We're here in this frustration because we've been talking about this for decades," says Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, located in Washington, D.C. "What we want to point out is that the federal agencies, their role is not to defend the status quo. It is to shake up the status quo."
The EPA has just once — in a settlement announced during the conference — found a polluter to have a disparate impact on a minority community.
In that case, the EPA and the state of California reached a settlement in a 12-year-old civil rights complaint involving Latino children — now teenagers and older — who were exposed to pesticides used on lands surrounding their schools.
The agreement requires the state to expand air monitoring for the pesticide by adding a monitor near a school named in the original complaint. Results will be shared with the EPA and the public, and the state also will increase its public education efforts at schools near areas where the pesticide is used.
The EPA's director of the office of civil rights, Rafael DeLeon, calls the settlement "historic" and says, "It's the first time we have found a prima facie violation of Title VI. ... I think it's significant."
But it wasn't nearly enough for some.
"Justice delayed is justice denied. A right without a remedy is no right at all. The injustice that happened as a result of this settlement is that they were denied a remedy. The Latino school children who are in schools now have been denied a remedy," says Brent Newell, general counsel at the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment who represented the students.
"I'm struggling to be civil right now. For one thing, it was incompetence and a lack of commitment to poor people and people of color that led the EPA down the road of sticking Title VI complaints on the back burner."
The EPA's DeLeon, who has been in his post for a year, admits the agency has a backlog of about 40 civil rights complaints to investigate, some dating back more than a decade. "We don't have a great history of processing complaints on a timely basis; I think the backlog speaks for itself," DeLeon says.
But he pledged to address the backlog, work to better inform those who file complaints about the status of the EPA's investigation and to look for a better legal framework the agency can use to blend environmental laws and civil rights.
"Undoing the previous number of years of inactivity or nonsupport is going to take a little bit of time," he told the crowd in a closing session, "but I am firmly committed to addressing the issues you all have raised.
"I hear you."
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