Biden administration promises focus on environmental justice


Although the Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges that disadvantaged communities in America are disproportionately affected by pollution, hundreds of complaints sent to its civil rights office since the mid-1990s have only once resulted in a formal finding of discrimination.

The situation has provoked criticism from the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, the EPA’s own Office of Inspector General and citizens who have filed complaints that sometimes languished for years — or decades.

Under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, states, cities and other entities that receive federal funds are prohibited from discriminating because of race, color or national origin. That means citizens bearing the brunt of industrial pollution can bring a complaint if federal money is tied to the project.

In Uniontown, Alabama — a mainly Black town of 2,200 — residents complained to the EPA in 2013 about the Alabama Department of Environmental Management’s oversight of a huge landfill containing 4 million tons of coal ash that residents blame for respiratory, kidney and other ailments. Five years later, the EPA dismissed the complaint, saying residents hadn’t proven the landfill caused their health problems.

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission called the dismissal of the Uniontown complaint “another distressing step in the wrong direction” by the EPA office.

The outcome was typical. In three decades of fielding complaints, EPA’s civil rights office has almost never found pollution was adversely affecting human health. And without such a finding, the agency won’t even consider whether illegal discrimination occurred.

Marianne Engleman-Lado, who was recently appointed by the Biden administration to the EPA’s office of general counsel, had helped Uniontown residents with their case. She maintains the way the EPA evaluates such complaints makes it nearly impossible to prevail because proving with scientific certainty that pollution is causing disease is a nearly insurmountable obstacle.

Ben Eaton, a Perry County Commissioner involved in the Uniontown complaint, said attorneys warned that discrimination claims usually go nowhere, but residents felt their evidence — including photos and videos — was compelling. “What’s the use of having these agencies,” he said, “if they’re not going to do the job?”

Residents of a predominantly Black and Latino community in Oakland, California were similarly disappointed with results of their civil rights complaint over air pollution from ships and truck traffic at the busy Port of Oakland.

Margaret Gordon, a co-founder of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, said her group did not have a seat at the table when EPA hammered out an informal resolution with the port. Air pollution is still a problem, she said, although port officials are now more willing to listen to community members.

Lilian Sotolongo Dorka, who heads the EPAs office of external civil rights enforcement, touted the 2019 Oakland resolution as an “extremely effective” example of the difference her office is making in people’s lives.

But Richard Grow, who worked at EPA for 40 years before retiring in 2019 and was one of the agency’s negotiators, agrees with Gordon’s assessment.

“We put forth a number of very practical … solutions and recommendations and they just said ‘No,’” Grow said. When he reported the port’s and city’s position to Dorka’s office, he said he was told nothing could be done.

The office had no further comment, and the port issued a statement saying it is committed to continuing a dialogue with the community.

The EPA has the power to withdraw funding…

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