Obama climate push makes environmental justice a 'mainstream' issue -- McCarthy

U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said today that she plans to use her agency's focus on climate change as an opportunity to bring the environmental justice effort to the forefront.

McCarthy spoke this morning, via webcast, at a conference of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. The panel is tasked with providing recommendations to EPA on how to best help low-income and minority communities that are disproportionately burdened with environmental risks.

Former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson had declared environmental justice a priority, tasking officials with creating a plan that integrates environmental justice considerations into every agency action. But today, McCarthy brought that vision further, pledging to "build it as a core structure of all the work we do."

The plight of overburdened communities should be the stick by which EPA measures its success, she said.

"We have not made tremendous progress in every community, and until we do -- until every community shares in the benefit in terms of protection and resources available to them -- we haven't completed the task," McCarthy said, later adding: "[W]e're focused an awful lot in D.C. on big national rules, instead of on-the-ground improvement."


That means more regional efforts, McCarthy said -- and a strategic plan that sets attainable goals for what will be a long-term effort.

But more immediately, President Obama's focus on climate change presents an opportunity to make environmental justice "mainstream," she said. That's because the communities most at risk in a changing climate are the same ones that are already overburdened with environmental risks.

"You and I know that most vulnerable people in our community today are going to be most vulnerable" in the future, she said. "Those are the people we need to serve today in order to make sure that they are not continuing to face risks."

McCarthy's comments came as EPA announced that it would award $1.1 million to 39 nonprofit and tribal organizations to address environmental justice issues. Such grants, handed out annually, provide up to $30,000 for projects that tend to be educational in nature and tackle everything from asthma to pesticides.

But McCarthy said today that she hopes to leverage all of EPA's grants to communities that are the most in need. Environmental justice, she said, will be the focus of a "coordinated grant strategy" that focuses on water and toxics.

"My idea is not to build up the environment justice grants," she said. "It's to target the entire resources of the agency to where the needs are greatest."

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