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Environmental Justice Stalled, Report Finds

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Federal regulations have an impact on the development of technologies, the finances of companies, the competitive playing field and how many lawyers are on a company's staff to interpret the rules. These are the practical, known effects of regulations on business.

The rules also have an effect on communities when it comes to important decisions about where to locate a hazardous-waste facility, an industrial plant or a refinery, especially if race is involved.

A recent report by the United Church of Christ in Cleveland suggests that decisions made by federal, state and local governments, as well as by companies, have penalized minority groups. The evidence: There are a disproportionate number of hazardous-waste facilities near where they live.

The report, a reprise of a 1987 examination of the problem, found that over the past 20 years, minorities have been subjected to excessive levels of toxic pollutants from sites that have negatively affected their health and, often, property values.

The report, "Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty," cites "clear evidence of racism where toxic waste sites are located and the way government responds to toxic contamination emergencies" in minority communities. Many communities also face new threats "because of government cutbacks in enforcement, weakening health protection, and dismantling the environmental justice regulatory apparatus," the study said.

Using updated research and new methods, the study found that 56 percent of the people who live within three kilometers (1.86 miles) of one of the nation's 413 hazardous-waste facilities are Hispanics, blacks, Asians, Pacific Islanders or American Indians.

The number jumps to 69 percent in areas with multiple facilities.

The study shows that the 1987 report, which relied on cruder measures such as Zip codes, underestimated the number of people of color living near hazardous-waste sites.

Robin Saha, a professor at the University of Montana's Environmental Studies Program who worked on the report, said minority communities became "the path of least resistance" as industry's entry to white neighborhoods was blocked by not-in-my-backyard opposition.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton addressed the issue of race in the placement of facilities when he ordered 11 federal agencies to identify and address the effects of their policies on minority and low-income populations in the United States.

Since then, there have been legal battles, the flowering of a grass-roots advocacy movement and differences over how to approach the problem, depending upon who has been in the White House.

Even the concept of "environmental justice" itself is the source of disagreement: The term originally meant paying attention to underprivileged populations who might be overexposed to pollution and toxics. The Bush administration has reinterpreted it as an effort to protect all people.

Business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce lobbied to have funds cut off to the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1990s so it couldn't issue guidance to industry on environmental justice.

"We saw EPA setting up this structure to impose environmental-justice guidelines over all environmental laws," said William Kovacs, the chamber's vice president for environment, technology and regulatory affairs.

Kovacs said the guidance would have fueled concern over how the agency handled permits, enforcement and cleanups, with many businesses being unable to locate in areas that have a preponderance of waste or industrial facilities.

A Supreme Court case in 2001 put the brakes on litigation filed under civil rights laws because communities now have to prove that companies were intentionally discriminating against them. The earlier standard allowed groups to allege "disparate impact" on their communities.

Since 2000, the EPA has been chastised by nonprofit groups and other government entities such as the agency's own inspector general and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for not having a plan to incorporate environmental justice into day-to-day operations. When the agency did propose a plan in 2005, it wasn't specifically directed at helping communities of color.

Instead, it focused on protecting all people, including minority and low-income populations, and incorporating environmental-justice considerations into the agency's planning and budgeting processes.

EPA officials said the focus is on collaboration and grants to communities, the development of a computer program to identify areas with problems, and staff training.

Charles Lee, acting director of the agency's Office of Environmental Justice, said, "Environmental justice is more complicated than those two factors" -- meaning race and income. Lee was involved in the first United Church of Christ report.

Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University and one of the authors of the report, said the agency is doing "nothing more than pushing paper and putting up Web sites."

Carol Browner, EPA administrator in the Clinton administration, said the issue has languished and lacks leadership at the top.

The agency said in 2006 it investigated 34 environmental-justice-related cases, but it didn't offer specifics. Its Web site says that 148 administrative environmental-justice complaints were closed as of March 14 and that 40 were pending.

There were no details about the complaints or when they were filed.

Waste Management of Houston, the largest waste-services company in North America, said more work is being done on informing communities of the impact of facilities.

Sue Briggum, Waste Management's vice president for federal public affairs, said the company offers free sanitary services, gets involved in schools and pays "host" fees to communities with disposal facilities.

"We are very much aware we have to be good neighbors," she said.

Advocacy groups aren't persuaded. They are lobbying for legislation, which was introduced in Congress on Feb. 15, to make the Clinton order a law.

Cindy Skrzycki is a regulatory columnist for Bloomberg News. She can be reached atcskrzycki@bloomberg.net.

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