EPA to Weaken Civil Rights Protections Under Obama

The EPA’s Office of Civil Rights is trying to weaken civil rights protections through a new proposal that will negatively impact communities that suffer environmental discrimination.

Ron Smith
Ron Smith stands on the property that his family has owned since his great-grandfather's time. A landfill built adjacent to the property is the subject of an unanswered EPA complaint filed 13 years ago. (Jeronimo Nisa for Earthjustice)

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Editor’s Note: The EPA is holding a teleconference on March 1 at Howard University in Washington, D.C., from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. EST to ask for public feedback on the agency’s proposal to weaken civil rights protections. Dial 1-877-887-8949 (Conference ID #58156799) to be connected.

The nation just observed Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and with horrible irony, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in the midst of trashing King’s legacy.

I say this because the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights is trying to weaken civil rights protections through a new proposal that will negatively impact communities that suffer environmental discrimination. Yep, you read that right. The EPA’s Office of Civil Rights has proposed weakening civil rights protections by eliminating the deadlines for investigating the civil rights complaints it receives.

Report after report shows that black and brown communities get dumped on the most and the hardest by environmental pollution. In fact, a recent study from two professors at the University of Montana and the University of Michigan found that racial discrimination and assumptions that communities of color offer the “path of least resistance” drive decisions about who gets more LULUS or “locally unwanted land uses.”

Communities of color and those in low-income neighborhoods are more likely to live near landfills, waste transfer stations and sewage treatment plants than white Americans. To make matters worse, we’re more likely to live by power plants, oil refineries, highways and bus depots, and we’re more apt to suffer the ill-health affects like asthma and heart disease because of it.

The Office of Civil Rights’ mission, in large part, is to prevent states, municipalities and private companies that receive EPA funds from allowing or enabling environmental discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity.

When local and state governments decide to issue pollution permits for landfills and waste transfer stations and ignore the fact that such permits would overburden black or brown communities that already have an unfair burden of pollution, they’re breaking the law. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 allows federal agencies to withhold funds when a recipient of federal funds is discriminating on the basis of color, national origin, sex, disability and age. And discrimination doesn’t have to be intentional; it refers to unjustified unequal impacts.

When the Office of Civil Rights receives such complaints, it can take action by withholding federal funding from states and municipalities, if civil rights were violated. And it can force polluters to the table to alleviate the damage they would otherwise cause.

Unfortunately, the Office of Civil Rights has a terrible record of acting on discrimination complaints. Consider what happened to the community that Ron Smith, 63, of Ashurst Bar, Ala. lives in.

In the 1990s, Smith’s parents Ann and Thomas unsuccessfully fought the Alabama Department of Environmental Management’s decision to permit the Stone’s Throw Landfill to operate in their historically black community. Since then, his mother has been fighting to stop the plant’s operation.

In 2000, Smith moved in with his parents to help the fight against the landfill and to help protect 280 acres of land that had been in the family since the 1800s. Landfill owners were trying to buy all the surrounding land they could, and the Smith’s property was no exception.

Thanks to the landfill, whenever Smith leaves his house, he’s hit with the nasty stench that comes from the nearby mountains of trash. Typically, hours before daybreak, massive trucks barrel down small rural roads to dump trash they’re licensed to take from all of the state’s counties and three counties in Georgia. Vultures circle and stray dogs search for scraps amongst the refuse. Residents worry about the quality of their air and the polluted groundwater that some rely on to water their gardens.

In 2003, the residents filed a complaint with the EPA arguing that the Alabama Department of Environmental Management discriminated against their community on the basis of race by granting the landfill owners a permit to operate.

The EPA has 180 days to determine whether a complaint it’s considering violated a complainant’s civil rights—It’s been 13 years since the complaint was first filed. Unfortunately, inaction on such complaints is pretty much the norm for the EPA Office of Civil Rights.

In fact, an investigative report by the Center for Public Integrity and NBC in August found that the EPA received nearly 300 discrimination complaints in its 22-year history, and it has never made a formal finding of a civil rights violation. More than 90 percent of communities that make complaints find their complaints rejected or dismissed.

In the years that Smith has been waiting for action, Stone’s Throw landfill has doubled in size, swallowing up more and more property and depressing property values. When community members die, their children and grandchildren don’t want to keep property next to a landfill and so they sell it to Stone’s Throw Landfill, leading to the further decline of this historically black community.

Smith told Ebony, “Every landfill in the state of Alabama is in a black community or in an economically depressed community. The whole reason they’re there is because the communities can’t defend themselves. It’s the path of least resistance.”

And, as if to mock the Ashurst Bar community, the Alabama Department of the Environment recently gave Stone’s Throw Landfill its Landfill of the Year Award.

Earthjustice is one of many groups that’s trying to push the EPA to do a better job of acting on civil rights complaints. Earlier this year, communities sued the EPA for allowing five separate civil rights complaints, including the one involving Ashurst Bar, to languish for more than a decade.

Now, under the EPA’s recent proposal, which is open for public comment until March 12, the agency would no longer have deadlines for acting on complaints and won’t even have to investigate those they determine have merit.

A couple of years ago, in a major speech about civil rights, President Obama said: “To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency.”

I wonder what he would say about the EPA’s current proposal.

A version of this blog ran on the Huffington Post’s Black Voices.

Based in Washington, D.C., Keith is the National Communications Strategist for Partnerships and Intersectional Justice.

Established in 1989, Earthjustice's Policy & Legislation team works with champions in Congress to craft legislation that supports and extends our legal gains.