Whether EPA should Do More to Fight Environmental Injustice

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The United States Environmental Protection Agency has to function in tandem with its stated motto and formulated policies, pushing aside thoughts of class, creed, race, gender and geographic barriers, if it has to achieve any kind of environmental justice for the communities under its protection. Whether it has succeeded or failed in its efforts can be determined only after examining the reports put forth by two prominent persons in society- Granta Y. Nakayama and Robert D. Bullard. While the former is a staunch supporter of the EPA, the latter views the organization with skepticism. Their viewpoints leave readers with a question on their minds-should the EPA be doing more to fight environmental injustice?

The Environmental Protection Agency

April 22 is known as Earth Day. This Historic Day was created by an ex-Senator to spread awareness among people about the degradation of the environment, and to encourage them to clean up the earth. This is the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day. And it is also the fortieth anniversary of this organization known as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It was set up at Washington D. C. in July 1970, when the White House and the Congress were pressurized by an increasingly concerned public about the pollutants degrading the air and water around them. The EPA was a promise for a cleaner environment. With an employment base of around 17,000 people across the country, the EPA focuses on environmental science, education, research and ongoing assessment of its efforts according to the EPA's new administrator, Lisa Jackson (Jackson, 2010).

The new administrator has expressed the opinion that while her Agency has achieved a lot, it will definitely try to do more in future. The Clean Air Act served to bring some reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases, but it was not enough. There have to be stricter laws, and they will have to include air and water quality too. They would have to work more with the power sector and enforce laws more strictly, to ensure that toxic gases and mercy particles were not released into the air. This would entail the redefining of the Toxic Substances Control Act. More attention would be paid to the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay to focus on stronger drinking water protection, post construction runoff and water quality impairment from surface mining (Environmental Health Perspectives, 2007).

While all this sounds sincere enough, what caught the attention of the media and the public was the assurance given regarding disadvantaged communities. The EPA has stated that it will work more with colored communities, tribes, economically backward cities and towns, and so on. It was imperative that the Superfund Program work on a foundation of transparency, justice and scientific values (EPA, 2010).

Laws and Acts Brought Out by the Environmental Protection Agency

As an organization, the EPA does not have it easy while trying to promote environmental justice. It has to fight many battles. Hence, there are a great number of Laws and Acts that it has helped create, and which it controls. The number is quite astounding, and cannot be listed out completely here. However, a few notable ones are-Clean Air Act or CAA, Clean Water Act or CWA, Emergency Planning and Community, Right-to-Know Act or EPCRA, Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act or FIFRA, Atomic Energy Act or AEA, Energy Policy Act or EO 12898 Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations, Nuclear Waste Policy Act or NWPA, Occupational Safety and Health or OSHA and Toxic Substances Control Act or TSCA (EPA, 2010).

Granta Y. Nakayama Commends the U.S. EPA's Efforts

A look at Lisa Jackson's speech and the efforts put forth by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency thus far should convince anyone that this organization cannot be faulted for environmental injustice. And one person who would agree with this viewpoint is Granta Y. Nakayama. The Assistant Administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, EPA, stands by his team's efforts (EPA, 2010).

According to the Agency's Executive Order 12898, it is part of EPA's mission to achieve environmental justice for minority populations and low-income groups. In this respect, he feels proud that they have proved to be some kind of groundbreakers for others to emulate. Granta's team had been directed to conduct the following tasks to, "ensure that companies meet environmental laws, reduce exposure to air toxics, reduce asthma attacks, ensure that water is safe to drink, ensure that fish and shellfish are safe to eat (Federal Drug Administration), reduce incidences of elevated blood lead levels (ASTDR and the Department of Housing and Urban Development), revitalize Brownfield's and contaminated sites and foster collaborative problem-solving" (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before the Committee on Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Superfund and Environmental Health and United States Senate, July 25, 2007).

All the tasks might not have met with resounding success, but headway had been made via a Memorandum of Understanding with organizations like the CDC and the ATSDR. The idea was to seek solutions to reduce community health problems that resulted from environmental hazards. To that extent, there would be no discrimination regarding race or color, nationality or income. Further, the communities would have access to information, that is, get educated regarding the laws and regulations and how they were being implemented. People would be given the right to engage in meaningful participation, as environmental justice was a shared responsibility. Granta has statistics to support his claims--$31 million in grants that have been awarded to those community-based organizations that play an active role in environmental cleanup programs. As accountability is a big part of this entire program, online training is offered via three courses (Environmental Health Perspectives, 2007).

Since this agency has prestigious supporters from all walks of life, it has been able to renew the charter for the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council or the NEJAC. This came in useful when the country was bombarded by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. There was timely decision making, adequate distribution of funds and resources for cleaning up, recovering and rebuilding the damaged areas along the Gulf Coast (Environmental Health Perspectives, 2007).

While commending the efforts put forth by the EPA and the goals achieved so far, Granta is also candid enough to admit that there have been lapses at times. But the experience over the past few years has convinced them that environmental justice should be a prime concern in all of the Agency's core programs in future. Another aspect to success is collaborative problem solving.

Robert D. Bullard is not happy with the U.S. EPA's Efforts

While Granta Y. Nakayami presents a rosy picture of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, Robert D. Bullard, has something totally different to convey. He points out what the EPA had to say about environmental justice way back in 1998:

"Fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. Fair treatment means that no group of people, including racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic group should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations or the execution of federal, state, local, and tribal programs and policies" (Subcommittee on Superfund and Environmental Health of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Regarding Environmental Justice, July 25, 2007).

This has only been a wonderful statement on paper, according to Robert D. Bullard. The reality is quite different as he has plenty of examples to cite concerning environmental injustice. A landfill in Dickson County, Tennessee, was supposed to be classified as Superfund, but the Blacks were told that they could still drink the water there; the whites were told to stay away from the contaminated water. Much later, the entire community protested and demanded justice. If the EPA had been doing its job properly, it would not have taken the Blacks so long to fight against such unreasonable injustice (Bullard, Mahai, Saha, & Wright, 2008).

The Moton Elementary School is supposed to be standing on a landfill in New Orleans. The children suffer from breathing problems and drink water that is not fit for human consumption. There are many such examples of environmental injustice, and Robert sums it up this way, "When you look at the neighborhoods that are where you have a lot of different waste facilities... the people who live closest are oftentimes the most vulnerable people who have the fewest resources to escape neighborhoods because of residential segregation, housing discrimination, and limited incomes" (Luckin, 2009).

In contrast to what Granta has to say about the EPA's response to Hurricane Katrina, Robert D. Bullard feels that the government hampers relief efforts as it is too slow in its response. Even where environmental justice is concerned, it is unfortunate that the federal authorities take so long to decide who should receive help and who should not. In fact, Robert is very critical of the Government, considering that they never bother to probe into certain injustices-research organizations are partial to certain communities; residential areas are not explored properly to figure out why some are more toxic than the others; industrial effluents are released into water bodies that are adopted by disadvantaged groups; there is indiscriminate dumping; and while some populations get all kinds of facilities and protection, others do not (Dicum, 2007).

Protests have begun right from the grassroots level at least over the past two decades, but there is still a lot to be achieved before complete environmental justice is to be achieved. Despite his severe criticism of the EPA's efforts so far, Robert D. Bullard expresses hope that things will improve as there are many environmental activists, leaders and academicians who have joined the fray. Whether they stay in reservations, urban ghettos or rural poverty brackets, everyone is entitled to the same kind of protection. While there are plenty of committed people, especially youngsters, who are coming forward to usher in environmental justice, they are hampered by the lack of time. Considering that degradation is spreading to such a great extent, especially from developing countries to the underdeveloped ones, the EPA has still a long way to go (Bullard, Mohai, Saha & Wright, 2008).

Robert has eight recommendations to offer to the EPA:

The Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898 has to be codified, so that the objectives of environmental justice are fulfilled at all levels. This will bring in more accountability.

The Superfund Tax has to be reinstated.

There should be hearings held by the U.S. Congress regarding the EPA's responses to toxic contamination and landfills in certain areas, discrimination, and so on. Let them explain what they have been doing to resolve these issues.

Legislation to promote clean production and waste reduction would be most welcome.

Manufacturers should be morally responsible to provide all the safety information about a chemical before it is introduced into the market. This is to be referred to as, "no data, no market" principle.

The EPA Office of Inspector General's recommendations need to be implemented, as even the Agency's Inspector agrees on the lack of strategic planning in the organization.

The government should protect the community's right-to-know information.

Finally, every state should send in a report card on environmental justice to the federal government on a regular basis.

Of course, plenty of other recommendations have been made by Robert and his team, but the above-mentioned ones were to be the main focus. As he has always been advocating, Robert D. Bullard wants this statement to be proved false:

"There is a racial divide in the way the U.S. government cleans up toxic waste sites and punishes polluters. White communities see faster action, better results and stiffer penalties than communities where blacks, Hispanics and other minorities live. This unequal protection often occurs whether the community is wealthy or poor" (Bullard, Mohai, Saha & Wright, 2008).


As mentioned earlier, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has to function in tandem with its stated motto and formulated policies, pushing aside thoughts of class, creed, race, gender and geographic barriers, if it has to achieve any kind of environmental justice for the communities under its protection.

While Granta Y, Nakayami is to be commended that his EPA team has managed to achieve so much, Robert D. Bullard's skepticism cannot be discarded either. Even without the instances of discrimination being cited, it is obvious to most people that environmental injustice does prevail. Racism in the U.S. has not stopped just with generalities; it has carried over to the environment too. And there are a great number of books, articles and statistics to prove that the immigrant "colored" population are the worst sufferers of environmental degradation. It is heartening that so many more people are coming forward to bring about a balance, but as has already been pointed out, there is so much to do and so little time. The only solution, therefore, is for people to join hands across the globe and engage in collaborative problem solving.