In too many American communities, low-income and minority families shoulder a disproportionate burden of pollution in the places where they live, work and learn. These disparities result in health challenges like asthma and heart disease, and end up turning away job creators looking for attractive, healthy places to set up their businesses.
This past week the Obama Administration took an important step to address those disparities when Federal leaders signed their agencies into Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Environmental Justice. At the highest levels of the Obama Administration, we are intent on ensuring Americans have equal opportunity to enjoy the health and economic benefits of a clean environment.
Across the Administration, agencies have already turned words into action to generate on-the-ground health, environmental and economic results for American communities. Agencies are:
- Integrating environmental justice into Federal programs. EPA has launched EJ2014, an environmental justice action plan with specific actions taken over the past few months including: incorporating environmental justice into enforcement; expanding community engagement with initiatives like Gulf Coast Restoration Environmental Justice Roundtables; and initiating Brownfield area-wide planning efforts in 23 communities. The Department of Transportation has recently issued an Emerging Trends and Best Practices Guidebook to promote a deeper understanding of the responsibilities, opportunities and benefits of addressing environmental justice in transportation planning.
- Increasing engagement with American communities. In response to feedback from environmental justice leaders at an historic White House Forum on the issue in December, many agencies have expanded their efforts to host listening sessions, sponsor conferences, and offer their programs up for public comment to ensure Americans have a chance to weigh in on issues that affect their daily lives. For example, the USDA’s Office of Tribal Relations is working with the Forest Service to improve protection and preservation of American Indian and Alaska Native Sacred Sites. This initiative has already involved listening sessions with Tribal elected and spiritual leaders in more than 50 locations, and will result in a series of recommendations on ways to improve the Forest Services' sacred sites policy.
- Making policy choices that prioritize communities that are shouldering a disproportionate amount of pollution. For example, the Department of Commerce and the Economic Development Administration have implemented a set of policy priorities to help focus investment funding as part of the competitive grant process. Two of these priorities are aimed specifically at reducing the burden of, or bringing benefits to, communities experiencing environmental justice issues.
- Revitalizing polluted waterways in under-served cities. Waterways are vital to the economic and public health of communities. Through an innovative new Urban Waters Federal Partnership (http://www.urbanwaters.gov/), 11 agencies are working with communities to clean, restore and revitalize polluted urban waterways in under-served cities across the country. The goal is to stimulate local economies and create jobs while improving the environment and protecting public health. The partnership will focus its initial efforts on seven pilot cities – Baltimore, the Bronx, Denver, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Northwest Indiana, and Washington.
- Focusing on the health of low-income rural communities. The Department of Agriculture is working to better serve persistent poverty in rural communities and socially disadvantaged farmers through its Strike Force initiative. This includes identifying and addressing disproportionate environmental and human health impacts in persistently poor communities.
- Helping communities tackle their health issues. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has announced it will make more than $100 million available in Community Transformation Grants for states and communities to make policy, environmental, programmatic and infrastructural changes to address the leading causes of death and associated risk factors. HHS also announced the Healthy People 2020 Community Innovations Project, which will make awards to community-based organizations to tackle health issues, placing a special emphasis on environmental justice, health equity, or healthy behaviors across all life stages.
These actions are just the beginning of our efforts to lay the ground work for achieving environmental justice for all Americans. The many Agencies involved are advancing this work as a part of an Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (EJ IWG). Stay tuned to the EJ IWG home page (http://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/interagency/index.html) for environmental justice updates in the coming months, including the release of Environmental Justice Strategies.
Nancy Sutley is Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality
Lisa Jackson is Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency