Some communities in our country suffer from a larger burden of environmental hazards than others. These areas are referred to as environmental justice (EJ) communities. While more attention has been given to EJ communities as of late, tangible, specific changes to reduce the burden of toxic exposures in EJ communities has been non-existent. For example, neighborhoods in the northern Birmingham area continue to suffer from industrial pollution despite being named an EJ community by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). EPA’s Office of Civil Rights has “accepted” two Title VI Complaints against the Jefferson County Department of Health. But the investigation has not started.
In an attempt to improve the health and quality of life for residents of EJ communities, EPA has released the “2020 EJ Action Agenda,” which is their 2016-2020 strategic plan for environmental justice. GASP will weigh in on this Agenda to give Birmingham and our members a voice. We’re looking for neighborhood associations, churches, and other groups that want to see strong improvements to EPA’s handling of environmental justice to sign on to our comments or submit their own.
The 2020 EJ Action Agenda will help the EPA integrate environmental justice into everything they do. This vision is intended to help make vulnerable, economically challenged, and environmentally overburdened communities cleaner and healthier places to live.
The three main goals of the plan are:
- To deepen environmental justice practices within every EPA office and region.
- To collaborate more with communities, governments, and stakeholders.
- To demonstrate progress on critical national environmental justice challenges.
Focus of GASP’s EJ 2020 comments:
- The EPA should use environmental justice factors to select communities with the greatest need to receive additional attention and resources.
- Plan EJ 2020 should build Title VI compliance and enforcement into all aspects of EPA’s operations, and should establish a system by which the EPA will resolve all Title VI civil rights complaints in a timely manner.
- The Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ) and the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) should coordinate and communicate more when on the ground in vulnerable communities in order to create a clear role for the OEJ to provide their expertise.
- The EPA should strengthen oversight of state and local agencies administering federal environmental laws and prioritize the best practices in permitting, rulemaking, and enforcement. GASP supports EPA’s objective to enhance work with regulatory partners in overburdened communities. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management and the Jefferson County Department of Health will surely benefit from increased collaboration with EPA to address disparate impacts of illegal pollution on communities.
- As part of Goal II, especially in the Northern Birmingham communities, EPA could build the capacity of communities to take part in critical environmental and public health issues that impact them by, for example, holding trainings and distributing materials and resources well in advance of Title V permit renewals in order to enable community members to comment meaningfully on Title V permit renewal applications.
- GASP fully supports and welcomes EPA’s focus on developing innovative monitoring tools and technological solutions to environmental problems. Citizen science will empower overburdened communities and thus should continue to be an integral part of EPA’s EJ Action Agenda.
Here’s what you can do:
It is important for Birmingham citizens to raise their voice for a stronger EPA Environmental Justice Program. Local regulatory agencies look to EPA for guidance when determining how to handle environmental justice issues. Comments are due to the EPA July 28.
Please consider supporting a stronger EPA environmental justice program by either signing on to GASP’s comments, or submitting your own. We are also looking for neighborhood associations, churches and civic organizations to support stronger EJ policies. And please give us suggestions of groups we can contact to ask for support.
Deputy Associate Assistant Administrator for Environmental Justice
USEPA, Office of Environmental Justice (2201-A) 1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20460
For more information regarding the public comments or next steps regarding the development of EJ 2020, please contact Charles Lee ([email protected]), Deputy Associate Assistant Administrator for Environmental Justice.
A version of this article appeared in our Summer 2016 print newsletter.
Kirsten has been with GASP from the very beginning as a founding board member, then as a part-time executive director, and now as outreach director. Kirsten hopes future generations will inherit a healthy Alabama where clean air and water are valued and protected. Email Kirsten