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EPA Commits to Strengthen Enforcement for Communities Hit Hardest by Environmental Injustice

2020 Action Plan highlights how pollution hazards go hand in hand with racial and economic inequality.
Flaring at a refinery located next to homes in Wilmington, CA.

Flaring at a refinery located next to homes in Wilmington, CA.

Photo courtesy of Jesse Marquez
May 23, 2016
Washington, D.C. —

Earthjustice commends the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for recognizing the need for a renewed commitment to end environmental injustice, and for committing to target enforcement efforts to reduce environmental hazards in at least 100 communities that face the highest burdens from pollution in the United States.

Today, the EPA announced this effort with the release of its Environmental Justice 2020 Action Agenda. The agency will receive public comments about this plan during a 45-day comment period that will end July 7, 2016.

Statement by Lisa Garcia, Earthjustice’s Vice President of Litigation for Healthy Communities:

“Today Administrator McCarthy and the many EPA staff who assisted with this plan should be commended for continuing to make environmental justice a priority. We also must recognize all of the environmental justice and civil rights leaders for their dedication in pushing the EPA to issue today’s call to action to reduce environmental and health disparities. Communities of color, low-income, and indigenous communities have the same right to clean air, clean water and a healthy environment but have been too often ignored by federal policies and decision-making. This Plan reflects an important recognition that federal actions have sometimes failed to protect the communities hit hardest by pollution, and that EPA must start attacking entrenched environmental injustice by upping its game, especially when it comes to enforcement actions."

"Whether EPA strengthens important policy commitments and actually delivers meaningful health protection for the most overburdened, and long-ignored communities will be the real test of today’s announcement. Earthjustice will continue working with community partners to insist that EPA follow the law, fulfill its commitments under this plan, and achieve stronger health protection for communities from lead, freight and port pollution, particulate matter, and other toxic air, water, and waste exposure. EPA’s plan is a step in the right direction to start making up for that injustice, and to achieve its commendable goals, EPA must fully include community leaders and voices in following up on its plan to hold agency officials accountable and strengthen their actions, every step of the way,” said Lisa Garcia, Earthjustice Vice President of Litigation for Healthy Communities.

Statement from Vernice Miller-Travis, Vice-Chair, Maryland Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities: “Today’s Plan is a quantum leap forward for EPA to prioritize the needs of environmental justice communities around the country, and this document goes a long way toward addressing those needs,” said Vernice Miller-Travis, Vice-Chair, Maryland Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities.  “However, we know this will only happen if there is complete commitment from the White House and EPA, going forward, to fully implement and strengthen this plan, and make it real in the lives of everyday people across the country who are facing unjust and undue burdens from environmental threats to their health and well-being.”

Statement from Hilton Kelley, Executive Director, Community In-Power & Development Association, Inc.: “EPA is taking a step in the right direction when it comes to enforcing compliance and incorporating environmental justice into all of their actions, as well as exploring new ways they should collaborate with states, tribal, and local governments because these regulators need a lot more direction.  We know more can and should be done, especially on monitoring and compliance to protect community health and the environment, in communities like Port Arthur and Houston, TX, Mossville, LA, and other Gulf communities,” said Hilton Kelley, Executive Director, Community In-Power & Development Association."

Statement from Jesse Marquez, Executive Director, Coalition For A Safe Environment: “We applaud the new visions of the EJ 2020 EPA Action Agenda to focus on other agencies like the US Army Corps of Engineers, which does not have an Environmental Justice Division or Executive Officer, to address the significant negative impacts and environmental law violations of air pollution, noise, traffic congestion, public safety and public health impacts of ports and freight transportation corridors which they have neglected in the past. Recent Port of Los Angeles matters we have worked on are examples of what is wrong with the current environmental and community impact review, assessment and compliance process,” said Jesse Marquez, Executive Director, Coalition For A Safe Environment."

History behind Plan EJ 2020:

Former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson initiated the first effort through Plan EJ2014 to integrate environmental justice analysis into all EPA programs as a way of implementing President Clinton’s 1994 Environmental Justice Executive Order, through guidance on rulewriting, permitting, and enforcement, science, law and mapping tools. 

That effort was followed by Administrator McCarthy’s EJ 2020 Action Agenda, the EPA’s Environmental Justice Strategic Plan for 2016–2020, which for the first time, makes substantive commitments to reduce or reverse environmental harm that falls hardest on communities of color, low-income, and indigenous communities.

Before coming to Earthjustice, Lisa Garcia worked previously as an environmental justice advisor to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and former Administrator Lisa Jackson.

More details on Plan EJ 2020 available at:

In addition to recognizing the need for fair and just environmental enforcement, ensuring resources are fully applied to fulfill legal protection for at least 100 overburdened communities,  the EPA has committed through EJ 2020 to a deeper focus of action on what the agency calls four “significant national environmental justice challenges,” which include: 

  • reducing children’s blood-lead levels and national action to reduce lead in drinking water;
  • ensuring community drinking water systems meet federal health standards; 
  • reducing fine particle pollution to meet national air quality standards for low-income communities; and 
  • reducing exposure to contamination at hazardous waste sites. 

The specific commitments in these areas should be much stronger, but it is symbolically important that for the first time EPA recognizes it has not done enough in these areas, and that the agency must do more to protect people disproportionately exposed to these hazards.

EPA’s plan is an important recognition by the nation’s environmental experts that injustice exists due to the fact that low-income communities, communities of color, and indigenous communities are subjected to higher levels of pollution, in part because of where polluting sources, like power plants, refineries, landfills and waste treatment facilities are placed, and because EPA has often failed to protect these communities. Communities of color and low-income communities face disproportionate health threats from preventable diseases like asthma and cancer both because of the heavier health burden caused by pollution and toxic exposure, and because EPA has not set or enforced strong enough standards to protect them.

Earthjustice’s work on environmental justice strategy:

In 2015, Earthjustice filed comments on EPA’s draft EJ2020 framework on behalf of 51 environmental, community, farmworker, and environmental justice groups and will continue working to strengthen health protection on environmental hazards included and not included in EPA’s strategic plan. 

As EPA moves forward, Earthjustice will continue calling on EPA to further strengthen its commitments on the issues it highlights like lead and air quality, and additional important issues like protecting farmworkers and their communities from pesticide exposures, where much more progress is needed to protect communities’ health. In the realm of enforcement, in addition to committing more resources as the plan does, EPA also must remove all unlawful regulatory exemptions and loopholes that undermine pollution standards, stop high-priority violators who frequently expose communities to dangerous pollution including from short-term violations that have a significant impact on public health, reform its Title VI external compliance program, and strengthen monitoring and public transparency in addressing the cumulative toxins and environmental hazards harming communities’ health.

Contacts

Lisa Garcia, Earthjustice, 202-797-5244

Daveon Coleman, Earthjustice, (202) 745-5222

Vernice Miller-Travis (Maryland), (301) 537-2115

Hilton Kelley, Community In-Power And Development Association (Port Arthur, TX), (409) 498-1088

Jesse Marquez, Coalition For A Safe Environment (Wilmington, CA), (310) 590-0177