White House meeting yields 'environmental justice' pledges

During a meeting this morning at the White House, the heads of U.S. EPA, the Interior Department, the Transportation Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development agreed to update their environmental justice plans by next fall and to restart a long-dormant panel that was created to address that issue.

The Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice, formed in 1994 by President Clinton under Executive Order 12898, had not convened at the Cabinet level since the middle of the Clinton administration, EPA said today. The agencies will now meet monthly to discuss environmental justice, with their top officials gathering for follow-up Cabinet sessions in April and October of next year.

Today's meeting showed that the individual agencies have already made environmental justice a priority, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told Greenwire today.

"There's a lot of legwork that goes into the kind of work we heard from each one of the agencies in the room," Jackson said, explaining why the panel hadn't gathered since President Obama took office. "None of these agencies, and certainly not my own, have waited in terms of impacting and acting on environmental justice."

Attorney General Eric Holder presented a plan to improve enforcement under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin, she said. HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan discussed the fair distribution of disaster relief funding, and DOT Secretary Ray LaHood outlined the agency's role in promoting sustainable development.


Since the start of her tenure, Jackson has made environmental justice a priority at EPA, listing it in a draft strategic plan as one of the agency's seven priorities for the next five years. As part of the so-called "Environmental Justice Tour," she has joined members of the Congressional Black Caucus on visits to areas facing environmental distress.

EPA is currently taking comment on draft guidance, released earlier this summer, that tells employees how to factor environmental justice into their decisions. The agency is also working on a screening tool that uses demographic and pollution data to identify pockets of people who have suffered more than most (Greenwire, July 30).

The administration announced today that it will schedule regional "listening sessions" on environmental justice next year and hold a White House forum on the topic. Though President Obama is drawing intense fire from Republicans, who say his regulatory agenda has slowed the recovery of the economy, Jackson said the meeting on environmental justice was not an effort to respond to that criticism.

"This meeting wasn't about politics," she said. "A clean environment is not a political issue -- every American wants and demands a clean and healthy environment."

Today's meeting was also attended by Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; Carol Browner, the White House climate and energy adviser and a former EPA director; John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Melody Barnes, director of the White House Office of Domestic Policy; and Martha Johnson, head of the General Services Administration.

"This country was built on the promise of equal opportunity for all of us, yet low-income families and minority communities shoulder a disproportionate amount of pollution and environmental degradation," Sutley said in a statement. "We cannot and will not ignore these disparities."

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