Obama’s EPA Administrator Renews Pledge for ‘Environmental Justice’

By Penny Starr | May 29, 2009 | 8:26 PM EDT

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, center, flanked by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), left, and White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair-designate Nancy Sutley listen to Menendez introduce them during their nomination hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in January on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)

 (CNSNews.com) – Lisa P. Jackson, the woman chosen by President Barack Obama to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), told attendees at a conference on environmental justice that minorities and low-income people are the victims of pollution by U.S. companies and businesses.
“There are too many places in this country where pollution and environmental degradation fall disproportionately on low-income and minority communities,” Jackson said via video at the third annual State of the Environmental Justice in America 2009 conference in Arlington, Va., on Friday.
“People have fallen ill with diseases like asthma and cancer. Businesses won’t set up shop in those neighborhoods, and good jobs are hard to find,” she said.
“We can’t stand by and accept those disparities,” Jackson, the first black to hold the post at the EPA, told conference attendees. “At EPA, part of our central mission is to show all Americans that we work for them.”
The conference has its roots in a 1994 executive order issued by President Bill Clinton – and not reversed by President George W. Bush over his two terms in office – that directed federal agencies and offices to develop a strategic plan to make sure minorities and low-income communities were not disproportionately harmed by toxic waste and other pollutants generated by industries and manufacturing plants in the United States.
Strategic plans have been issued by many of those agencies and offices in the years since the order put in place, including in 2007 when the U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE) announced a new five-year plan.
“Environmental justice means that those who have suffered a disproportionate share of environmental burdens should enjoy some of the environmental benefits of publicly funded production activities,” the plan says.
The plan states broad goals of identifying harmful DOE programs, enhancing public trust, improving research and data collection, but no specifics, including the cost of the plan, are included.
Critics of the environmental justice movement say that it might do more harm than good to minorities and people who live in poor communities.
Chris Foreman, professor and director of the Social Policy Program at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy and author of the book, “The Promise and Peril of Environmental Justice,” argues that while the environmental justice movement has rightfully put equality and accessibility for minorities and low-income Americans into the national environmental policy conversation, it may overlook the more important challenges facing these communities.
“In the end, I think environmental enforcement can yield real benefits for low-income communities and communities of color,” Foreman said when he testified before the United States Commission on Civil Rights in 2002.
“I believe it can do this by addressing collective quality of life challenges, guarding not so much against cancer and hypothetical "endocrine disrupters" but instead reducing more prosaic and tangible threats,” Foreman added.
“These include: filth (and the risk of infectious disease that come with it), odors, dust, noise, congestion, the absence of recreational and park facilities,” Foreman said.
Angela Logomasini, director of risk and environmental policy with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, told CNSNews.com that when outside environmental activists come into communities as “advocates” for minorities and low-income residents, the result can be shutting down businesses that provide jobs.
“The real injustice here is outside groups taking advantage of people who don’t know any better,” Logomasini said. “The people who are really suffering the most are people who need jobs.”
But Jackson told people at the conference that going into communities around the country should be a priority.
“Environmental justice communities have tremendous experience confronting unfair burdens and shaping sustainable alternatives,” Jackson said. “Your grassroots movement is an invaluable part of that.
“In the years ahead, we will call on your expertise,” she said. “We need you to help build the 21 century’s sustainable infrastructure and the economy that benefits us all.
“We have to go to every community and show them that the issues of environmental protection are their issue and that our world is their world,” Jackson said. “That’s how we bring every voice to this discussion. That’s how we bring real change.”