The Changing Face of Environmentalism

EPA chief's sentiments supported by Earthjustice actions

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The new Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, is on a mission to change the face of environmentalism. 

She speaks as a daughter whose mother was flooded out of the 9th Ward by Hurricane Katrina and who “can now make as compelling an argument as any wetlands expert about the need to protect and preserve wetlands.”  She speaks as a mother of a son with asthma who may not be able to go outside when ozone levels are high.

And she especially wants to broaden the conversation to make room for low-income and communities of color disproportionately burdened by pollution and to make environmental issues relevant to every-day Americans.

A main message from several of Lisa Jackson’s speeches  — that many people care deeply about our environment, but do not call themselves environmentalists — made me reflect on Earthjustice’s work to improve the health and quality of life of those most impacted by environmentally degrading activities.

 Our expert air litigators have repeatedly forced EPA to strengthen national standards restricting the air pollution that produces the smog that aggravates asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

 This past year, our successes include obtaining the first air regulation limiting mercury and other toxic air pollution from medical incinerators, a proposal to do the same for cement kilns, and a schedule for a similar regulation that will reduce toxic emissions from vinyl chloride manufacturers.  Our clients who live near mercury-emitting cement kilns and carcinogen-producing chemical plants will be able to breathe easier.

 In Appalachia, we represented communities trying to stop mountaintop removal coal mining, which buries destroys streams and pollutes the water and air. We also represented Pacific Northwest Tribes seeking to restore salmon runs, Alaska Natives trying to stop oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean, and the Inuit in their attempts to convince the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to expose and call the U.S. to task for failing to rein in carbon pollution that may devastate their way of life.

 Two recent initiatives illustrate how our work is bringing in changing the face and nature of the debate.

 First, we challenged an ill-conceived Bush-EPA regulation that would exempt 3 billion pounds of hazardous waste and an estimated 5,600 facilities from safe storage, transportation and disposal safeguards.  The industrial wastes that would slip through the cracks contain some of the most dangerous industrial solvents and toxic heavy metals linked to cancer, birth defects, neurotoxicity and immune disorders.

 When EPA held a public meeting to consider revising the rule, we worked with dozens of leading scholars and environmental justice advocates from across the country to present testimony and maps demonstrating that people of color and low-income residents have been disproportionately exposed to seriously contaminated air, water and soil from hazardous waste recycling.

 Within weeks, EPA declared it would reconsider the rule and conduct the first comprehensive environmental justice analysis for a rule.  Such assessments are required under a Clinton-era environmental justice executive order that has largely  lain dormant.  Reinvigorating that order will create a new set of tools to address disproportionate health threats posed to low income and communities of color.

 Second, in October, we filed a petition on behalf of farmworkers, health groups and concerned moms asking EPA to protect children from toxic pesticide drift.

 In 1996, Congress unanimously passed the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) giving EPA 10 years to ensure that children are protected from pesticides used on food, taking all the ways kids are exposed to these pesticides into consideration.

 To comply with the new law, EPA developed methods to estimate kids’ exposures to pesticides not only from eating food and drinking water but also from crawling on treated lawns and putting their hands into their mouths or playing with pets treated with flea shampoos.  These assessments led EPA to cancel many home uses of pesticides because of excessive risks to children.

 Inexplicably, EPA ignored children’s exposures to pesticide drift.  EPA’s double-standard protected kids in urban and suburban areas, but denied comparable protection to the generally low-income, Latino kids who live near the fields.  The petition, using FQPA, the Environmental Justice Executive Order and the Children’s Health Executive Order, asked EPA:

 To evaluate drift risks for all drift-prone pesticides and limit pesticide uses that result in children being exposed to unsafe levels of pesticides.

 And, because these pesticide-specific reviews will take time, to impose no-spray buffers around homes, schools, parks, day cares, and other places where children congregate.

 Within three weeks of filing, the EPA published our petition, asking for public comment.  Additionally, EPA is seeking public comment on a policy proposal to address pesticide drift more generally, but as we expected, EPA plans to take many years and likely more than a decade to put the needed protection in place.

 The press conference on the filing of the petition was the first that brought tears to my eyes.  Luis Medellin described toxic pesticides wafting into his home during each growing season, exacerbating one sister’s asthma, another’s skin ailments, and the youngest having a chemically induced flu.  The five-year-old asked, “Mommy what’s that smell, my head hurts, can you make it stop?”

 What an awful plea for a mother to hear.  We at Earthjustice want to stop the practices that made this little girl ask this question and made her mother powerless to answer.

 We are inspired by how well the EPA, under Lisa Jackson, has started to expand the reach of environmentalism and to include more voices in the dialogue.  Her commitment and responsiveness offers more hope than ever in the fight to defend the right of all people to a healthy environment. 


Patti is a senior attorney of the Northwest regional office in Seattle, where she works to fight efforts to turn the Pacific Northwest into a fossil fuel export hub. She also leads Earthjustice's pesticide work and efforts to preserve access to the courts and legal remedies. Her litigation experience includes notable successes in safeguarding the region’s old-growth forests, restoring Pacific salmon, and more.