First of two stories on the Obama administration's environmental justice efforts.
Lisa Garcia has no illusions: In a recent interview, the U.S. EPA associate assistant administrator compared her vision of nationwide environmental equity to achieving world peace.
Indeed, when Garcia first joined EPA as its environmental justice adviser, she was struck by the educational work that still needed to be done in overburdened communities.
"When I first came on board, even though the [environmental justice] movement has been around for a long time, it was interesting to hear from community residents that they still don't know exactly what EPA does," she said, "and they still don't have capacity to engage in some of the activities."
Environmental justice is sometimes hard to define. Proponents describe it as the ideal that no one community should be more burdened by environmental hazards than another. To get there, they must undo decades of politics and inequality that has left mostly poor, minority communities with the landfills, the nuclear waste, the power plants and the polluted air.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has made environmental justice (EJ) a priority, tasking Garcia with integrating that policy into the agency's rulemaking and actions. EPA has also taken the lead on the government's EJ goals, with Jackson heading up an interagency working group.
Like other agencies -- such as the Department of Justice -- EPA is hoping to fix the environmental injustices of the past. But the agency is also on the front end, aiming to educate communities on their rights before any damage is done.
"Historically, decisionmakers did put things in maybe poorer neighborhoods or communities that weren't as organized," Garcia said. "And so this is really about saying, well maybe that wasn't the right thing to do. So let's make sure that we on this end bring in some of the benefits to really get them to a place where other communities are."
Garcia is optimistic and ambitious in her plans. She has become a facilitator, one who has cast a wide net that covers not only EPA rulemaking but also community outreach and interagency cooperation. One day, she may work with EPA employees to study how regulations can be written with environmental justice in mind; another day, she may be speaking to the Department of Commerce on how it can best hold community outreach meetings.
Where EPA cannot be directly involved, Garcia has tried to provide information on the "best practices" for agencies, businesses and local governments to follow.
"We issued guidance on what we think would be a healthy environment for a school, even though we don't build schools, we don't site schools and we don't have jurisdiction over it. And so there's real opportunities for us to inform decisionmakers," she said. "We are still the Environmental Protection Agency, so most of our decisions are based on the science. We can share that science."
That, of course, assumes that agencies, businesses and politicians are willing to take extra steps to protect communities. But Garcia said part of her message is that working with communities can prevent later battles; one entity, she said, recently contacted EPA for advice on how it should involve the two communities that will be affected when it expands its facility.
"I would say the biggest fear maybe is that this would create a new regulation," she said. "When you actually start working on it, you realize that it doesn't. It actually could probably make the process smoother. You actually have a partner on some of these things. That it's not as negative as people think going into it."
'We have somebody on our side'
If all businesses are not yet on board, nonprofits are enthusiastic about EPA's new environmental justice focus.
Juan Parras, director of the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, said EPA has always listened to communities' concerns. But under Jackson, he said, the agency actually sometimes takes their advice.
"I think we at least feel confident that if somebody at EPA is concerned about communities, it's not just rhetoric and talk," he said. "They are actually doing something to help us."
In 2009, Jackson visited EPA's Region 6 -- which covers Texas and adjoining states -- and met with about 10 grass-roots activists, Parras said. They gave her the résumé of Al Armendariz, recommending him for the post of Region 6 administrator. Armendariz was appointed to the position on Nov. 5, 2009.
"That immediately sent word of encouragement," Parras said. "Basically, we have somebody on our side."
But EPA still has work to do if it wants to influence other agencies, some of which are still struggling to effectively reach out to communities. At a recent public meeting of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, one member said a recent community meeting held by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration seemed almost inaccessible to residents.
"The materials that they were giving out -- it's good material but it's overwhelming," said Wynecta Fisher, a NEJAC member who is the former director of the New Orleans Mayor's Office of Environmental Affairs. "For the layperson, it was way too much to digest."
Improving that dialogue is part of the mission of the interagency working group, which holds meetings throughout the country for community residents, activists and leaders. Garcia said the meetings often turn into a meet-and-greet, where residents are able to learn about the programs and missions of the agencies in one place.
"For a lot of community members, it's really about information on what this agency does -- to find out that NOAA is in the Department of Commerce or finding out that the Department of Defense actually has community grants," she said. "It's really like this great informational exchange, almost at a basic level, but so needed for communities who have not had that kind of access to federal agencies."
Darryl Malek-Wiley, the environmental justice organizer for the New Orleans Sierra Club, said he hopes agencies such as the Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers follow EPA's example.
"They have a set way of holding their meetings that are not conducive to real dialogue with the community," he said. "On some of these issues, they need to really listen to community knowledge that might not be scientific but it is knowledge about what they've seen happen and it could help."
Early access to grants
Malek-Wiley said EPA does have some work to do on itself -- namely, in making grants more accessible to small groups. The agency currently only offers reimbursements, forcing groups with little resources to put the money upfront.
"EPA has a series of different environmental grant programs, but the way the granting mechanism works, it's always a reimbursement program," he said. "A lot of small nonprofits don't have that money to begin with."
Garcia said she is working on making grants more accessible to communities, first by consolidating all the agencies' grants into one brochure or website. EPA is also talking to agencies about offering technical assistance grants that will allow groups to hire the experts they need to give advice on developments in their neighborhoods.
But if EPA reaches its goal, and every community has the resources to influence decisions, where will the power plants and the landfills go? The ideal, Garcia said, is for everyone to understand that the responsibility should be spread throughout all communities rather than an overburdened few.
"Let's all take our responsibility and say no one community should bear the burden of what I benefit from," she said. "I have lights -- that's a power plant. I have my garbage collected -- that's a landfill or waste transfer station. How do we collectively figure out how to bear the burden equally?"
And some communities, she said, might not mind having a power plant in its backyard -- if that plant has a green buffer zone and guarantees a certain percentage of jobs to neighborhood residents.
"Some people say, 'Can you define the environmental justice community?'" Garcia said. "I can't really describe that community because you have to go to the community and see what they want."
Tomorrow: the Department of Justice.