EPA:

Agency directs employees to protect poor, minorities

U.S. EPA leaders told agency employees yesterday to watch out for disparate environmental effects on the poor, racial minorities and American Indians, releasing a guidance document with advice on promoting "environmental justice" throughout the rulemaking process.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has focused on that issue during her tenure, touring the country with members of the Congressional Black Caucus to visit communities that have been disproportionately affected by pollution and environmental degradation. When the agency released a draft version of its five-year strategic plan, environmental justice was listed as one of her overarching priorities.

"Historically, the low-income and minority communities that carry the greatest environmental burdens haven't had a voice in our policy development or rulemaking," Jackson said in a statement. "This plan is part of my ongoing commitment to give all communities a seat at the decision-making table."

The guidance document was signed July 22 by Lisa Heinzerling, EPA's associate administrator for policy; Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance; and Lisa Garcia, senior adviser to Jackson on environmental justice issues.

The document tells employees to consider existing environmental disparities and any new ones that could be created by agency actions. It also directs staff to reach out to underrepresented groups "early and often."

"Relying on the minimum notice and comment requirements is often not enough to achieve meaningful involvement for minority, low-income, and indigenous populations," the report says. "Promoting meaningful involvement often requires special efforts to connect with populations that have been historically underrepresented in decision-making and that have a wide range of educational levels, literacy, or proficiency in English."

Industry groups have criticized Jackson's focus on environmental justice, saying it will slow investment and destroy jobs. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has taken a formal stance against the policy, saying in a position paper that EPA's effort "introduces intolerable uncertainty into the regulatory process" and "prevents economic development in the most disadvantaged communities in the nation."

A study released earlier this year by the Affordable Power Alliance concludes that underrepresented groups would bear the brunt of the costs associated with EPA's climate regulations. Led by minority faith organizations, an advocacy group for seniors and a coalition of black-owned businesses, the group has argued that higher energy prices would be a form of "environmental injustice."

"The EPA regulation will impact low income groups, the elderly, and minorities disproportionately, both because they have lower incomes to begin with, but also because they have to spend proportionately more of their incomes on energy," the report concludes (ClimateWire, March 30).

The guidance released yesterday encourages EPA officials to coordinate with economic analysts, gathering data that would allow them to determine whether environmental impacts are being evenly distributed. It touts the agency's final decision earlier this year to install additional nitrogen dioxide (NO2) air quality monitors in vulnerable areas such as urban neighborhoods near heavily traveled highways.

Jackson has argued that environmental protection will do more good than harm to the economic fortunes of minorities and the poor.

"The idea that environmental degradation is an obstacle to economic prosperity is a pillar of the environmental justice movement," Jackson said in March at the National Press Club. "And in a place where new jobs are needed the most, environmental degradation is an entry barrier for new investments in businesses."

Click here to read the guidance document.

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