Public Lab Research note

What's happening with government agencies' environmental justice work?

by mlamadrid | December 05, 2017 23:49 05 Dec 23:49 | #15312 | #15312

Article by Jill Lindsey Harrison, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Colorado-Boulder for Community Science Forum: Changing Environmental Governance Landscape

In my research, I investigate environmental regulatory agencies' efforts to integrate environmental justice (EJ) principles into their core regulatory work of rulemaking, permitting, and enforcement. These efforts were prompted by EJ advocates, a loosely networked collection of largely grassroots activists who work at the intersection of the environmental and Civil Rights movements and who have long argued that justice requires that the government reduce environmental hazards in the most vulnerable and overburdened communities and enable them to have more control over government decision-making.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state level environmental regulatory agencies it supports curb the harms of industrial growth in ways that other actors will not and cannot do -- neither industry, with its focus on profits, nor individuals and environmental organizations, who lack the power to force polluters to act. While the Trump Administration's budget cuts and efforts to shrink EPA's authority will harm all Americans, they are especially problematic for low-income, minority, and Native American communities, who have scarcely benefited from the environmental protections afforded to most Americans by legislation and regulatory enforcement.

Following President Clinton's 1994 Executive Order on Environmental Justice, federal agencies and numerous state-level agencies have responded to EJ movement pressure by adopting policies that could reduce the disproportionately large environmental burden on low income and minority communities, and hiring EJ staff tasked with proposing reforms to regulatory practice that would better facilitate environmental equity. Yet, although EJ advocates and agencies' EJ staff have proposed many regulatory reforms that could protect poor, minority, and Native American communities from dangerous environmental hazards, agencies have implemented few of them. My research examines the challenges faced by their EJ staff as a way to gain new insights into why these agencies fail to reduce harmful toxics and other hazards in our nation’s most overburdened communities. I conduct in-depth, confidential interviews with and observations of staff at numerous environmental regulatory agencies across the United States to identify the challenges they face and the strategies they use to surmount them. My goals include lifting up the important and often invisible efforts of agencies' EJ staff, as well as pressuring agencies to more meaningfully implement the EJ principles they formally endorse.

The Trump administration's attacks on federal environmental regulation affect my work in numerous ways. Employees at federal agencies are under increased scrutiny and surveillance, and many are afraid to talk with researchers or journalists -- those of us bringing EJ challenges to light in the public eye -- for fear of retaliation by political leaders. This, along with the rollbacks of environmental regulations and funding for regulatory programs further fuel my commitment to illuminating staff members' EJ efforts. Their work is crucial -- despite the constraints they face, EJ staff endeavor to support our most environmentally burdened communities by trying to change both regulatory practice and regulatory culture from the inside out in much-needed ways.

In addition to my EJ-specific research, as a member of the Environmental Data Governance Initiative (EDGI), I have interviewed former staff of the U.S. EPA about how changes in presidential administrations have affected their work in the past and how that compares with changes unfolding under the current administration. We contextualize and communicate the challenges EPA staff have faced in regulatory practice and culture, and we critically challenge the Trump administration's attacks on environmental science and regulation, bringing greater public awareness and public pressure to support our crucial environmental agencies.

Scholars, environmental and human rights activists, journalists, retired government staff, and even some current staff in unprecedented public protest have done invaluable work of stridently criticizing the Trump Administration's attacks on environmental protections. Through my own research and my work with EDGI, I stand with them in that protest and in defending our important public institutions -- while also holding them accountable to the principles of environmental justice.

Photo: Recreating in the Chattahoochee River. Photos by the Trust for Public Land.


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