Biden promises to focus on environmental justice


When President Joe Biden made environmental protection a key element of his campaign, he promised to overhaul the federal office that investigates complaints from people in minority communities who believe they have been unfairly harmed by industrial pollution or waste disposal.

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.

Residents of a predominantly Black and Latino community in Oakland, California were similarly disappointed with results of their civil rights complaint over air pollution.

EPA spokeswoman Lindsay Hamilton said that “The new leadership team will be working closely with career colleagues as well as receiving input from stakeholder groups, in an effort to bolster the agency’s capabilities to deliver on our environmental justice and civil rights missions.”

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