Public Lab Research note

Environmental Justice and Substantive Policies

by stevie | March 21, 2016 21:46 21 Mar 21:46 | #12868 | #12868

The image above is from President Clinton's signing of "Executive Order 12898, an historic directive to federal agencies to address disproportionately high and adverse human health and environmental effects on communities of color and low-income populations." Photo from, who cite the image to Dr. Robert Bullard.

I wanted to follow up the post I did back in September last year on Environmental Justice in Louisiana. This week past I attended the NEJAC meetings in Gulfport, Mississippi. NEJAC, established in 1993, is the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, “a federal advisory committee to EPA ... The Council provides advice and recommendations about broad, cross-cutting issues related to environmental justice, from all stakeholders involved in the environmental justice dialogue. ”

To start off the conversation, Gina McCarthy, the US EPA Administrator (think the president’s EPA speed dial contact), began the meeting with comments that “we are here because there are communities left behind.” She highlighted Environmental Justice in its relationship to Public Health, “when the system fails.” While McCarthy is considered, by many, to be progressive in her views of Environmental Justice, many in attendance at NEJAC define EJ issues as not merely in their relation to Public Health, but directly stemming from racism ingrained in our public and private systems.

While we can point fingers at various kinks in these systems where the dirty fingers of racism hold on, many people in NEJAC pointed at the breaking point between state and federal policy. This was specifically referenced at the NEJAC meeting in the state and federal response to the drinking water crisis in Flint. People in Flint had been going to the state on issues of their drinking water for years, and they were ignored. Even when citizens of Flint went to the EPA on the specific issue the EPA deferred concerned citizens back to the state. In fact, it took Virginia Tech, a university in an entirely different state, to bring out this issue through their water sampling in the Flint community. This is the job of the state, and when the state doesn’t do it, it’s the job of EPA to hold the states accountable or intervene and do it themselves.

In analyzing the relationship the Michigan state government has with the term “Environmental Justice” there is as a stark contrast to that of the Louisiana DNR and DEQ as previously discussed. Where you can’t find the words “environment” next to the word “justice” in any state policies in Louisiana, Michigan has at least developed an Environmental Justice Plan, most recently revised in 2010: “Environmental Justice Plan for the state of Michigan and department of Natural Resources and Environment.” (Side note that environmental issues Michigan are now under the Department of Environmental Quality)

In the Michigan state environmental justice plan, the state identifies: “The environmental justice plan among other things, must include measures to identify, address and prevent discriminatory public health or environmental effects of state laws, regulations, policies and activities on Michigan residents. Discriminatory effects are those that cause disproportionately adverse public health or environmental impacts on minority or low income populations...As with any state government agency, the DNRE must carry out its responsibilities in compliance with federal and state laws and agency regulations prohibiting both intentional and unintentional discriminatory actions based on a number of protected categories, including race, color or national origin. Furthermore, recommendations of of the plan include “prioritizing inspections, enforcement, compliance assistance, remediation and other activities which assist in identifying and mitigating disparate impacts.”

While we might expect that states who don’t even recognize Environmental Justice in their governmental agencies might be worse at protecting EJ communities, it had been unclear to me if states that do highlight EJ issues might be better. This is by no means an analysis, but based on what is happening in Michigan, it seems that even when the state recognizes the problems of environmental injustice, it does not necessarily follow that EJ communities are more protected, or even that the paths between people and policy, or metrics of accountability are more clear.

As previously mentioned in the EJ in LA post, the EPA has been putting forward tools such as EJScreen, and others in helping to identify vulnerable and subjugated communities. But as highlighted by the EPA, “EJScreen simply provides a way to display this information and includes a method for combining environmental and demographic indicators into EJ indexes.”. In the NEJAC meeting, renowned EJ advocate Vernice Miller-Travis (former Director of the Environmental Justice Initiative of the NRDC, former Executive Director of Groundwork USA, co-founder of We ACT for Environmental Justice) argues that beyond resources, and beyond engaging people in public participation, we need “substantive policies,” policies with teeth that direct responsibility and take action.

So while it’s great that Michigan had an EJ working group back in 2010, where are the substantive policies? While it’s also great that the EPA creates tools such as EJScreen and the new DWMaps, where are the substantive policies? And while we are told by US EPA Office of Water’s Deputy Assistant Administrator Joel Beauvais that (an estimated?) 9% of drinking water systems in the US are not meeting health based water quality regulations, where are the substantive policies?


Could it be that in a world where Republican presidential candidates publicly call for abolishing the EPA, that there just isn't the statewide public support needed to properly fund state environmental departments?

That's how it feels in Maryland. We just elected a Republican governor in our liberal state. He has a 60 % approval rating. And even before him, MDE didn't really have the staffing needed to do their jobs effectively.

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Funding certainly comes into play. @eustatic and I just had this conversation. Someone at the NEJAC meeting pointed out that the DOT (one of the agencies the environmental justice issue falls under) can sometimes be more responsive on EJ issues than the EPA. @eustatic pointed out that DOT funding is based on building projects rather than regulating so they are more apt to be financially supported and thus, perhaps more responsive.

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