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Environmental justice issues take center stage

"The intensity and focus on this issue in this administration, the integration of it into the bowels of the agency, has been so aggressive, those of us who do this work cannot keep up with what the administration is doing," said Vernice Miller-Travis, vice chair of the Maryland Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities.

Among the EPA's moves: reviving an interagency environmental justice task force that had been dormant for a dozen years; issuing a formal guidance to regional offices instructing them to seek the input of disadvantaged groups when making decisions; and drafting a plan to integrate the concept of environmental justice into the agency's everyday decision-making.

This flurry of activity worries industry officials such as Keith McCoy, vice president for energy and resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, who warned that it could hurt business operations across the country.

"Basically, EPA is saying to regional offices, engage with the environmental justice community and don't meet with anyone else on the issue," McCoy said, referring the draft guidance. "They've turned this more into a confrontational issue."

Jackson calls those kinds of objections "nonsense," saying her agency is simply reaching out to neglected communities that remain "hot spots of emissions, hot spots of contamination." People living in those neighborhoods, she said, don't want to lower their living standards in exchange for work.

"Find me the person who says, 'I'll take the pollution if you give me the job,' " she said.

But for years, certain urban and rural areas have served as magnets for industrial facilities and waste sites, sometimes because they generate economic opportunities. Chemical plants, an incinerator, a power plant and other facilities in three Baltimore neighborhoods - Brooklyn, Curtis Bay and Hawkins Point - released more than 20.4 million pounds of hazardous air pollutants in 2008 alone, and there are now plans underway to locate both a waste-to-energy incinerator and an ash landfill in the area.

Andy Galli, Maryland program coordinator for Clean Water Action, said one of the problems with the current permitting process for those facilities is that "there's nothing that requires cumulative effects on these communities."

People began talking about the issue of environmental justice four decades ago. During the first Earth Day in 1970, Chicano activist Arturo Sandoval led a march from an Albuquerque park to the city's barrio, where protesters waved signs with messages such as "Keep Your Pollution, Give Us Life."

The term entered the national lexicon in 1987 when the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice published a report on the issue, sparked by North Carolina's decision to place a toxic waste facility in a poor, predominantly African American community in Warren County.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, activists like Robert D. Bullard, who directs the Environmental Justice Resource Center in Atlanta, are still scheduling meetings with EPA regional officials, for example, to question the deposit of waste from the BP oil spill in the majority-black town of Campbellton, Fla., and the shipment of toxic coal ash from the 2008 Tennessee Valley Authority spill in mostly-white Roane County, Tenn., to a site in mostly-black Perry County, Ala.

"We're not just talking about something that happened 30 years ago, legacy stuff," said Bullard, who attributes those decisions to regional EPA officials rather than headquarters staff.

Bullard and others are pressing EPA to adopt a more stringent rule regarding the handling of coal ash: Right now the agency is deciding whether to require federal oversight of its transport and disposal, or to establish guidelines that the states could choose whether to enforce. Industry advocates argue that stricter rules will drive up costs and make it more difficult to reuse the coal combustion waste.

The issue is a source of contention as far away as Puerto Rico, where a subsidiary of the Virginia-based energy giant AES built a coal-fired plant in 2002 without establishing a landfill. For a few years the company shipped the waste to the Dominican Republic, but when that nation sued over the environmental impact and refused to accept any more, AES - which declined comment - started selling it as cheap landfill in Puerto Rico.

Now housing developments such as Parque Gabriela II in Salinas, one of the island's poorest regions, have piles of coal ash elevating their homes above the flood plain and lining a storm water retention pond whose contents could end up in the city's sole source of drinking water.

"All of this is getting leached into the aquifer," said Osvaldo Rosario, an environmental chemistry professor at the University of Puerto Rico's Rio Piedras campus. Rosario has sampled ash from the site, and an analysis showed radioactive material at more than twice the recommended limit under EPA guidelines.

Ruth Santiago, a lawyer representing several environmental groups in Puerto Rico, has appealed to EPA to step in and control the coal waste's disposal. "We've been asking for many years for attention to this issue," she said. The agency's proposed rules are "a step in the right direction. . . . As it is now, they can call it beneficial use, and have anybody dump it anywhere."

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