The Empty Halls of Justice

The EPA says it wants to hear from the public about how best to handle civil rights complaints, but low turnout at a recent meeting in Oakland, Calif., raises concerns about whether the agency is doing enough to get the public’s attention.

Low attendance at EPA meetings
The EPA says it wants to hear from the public about how best to handle civil rights complaints, but low turnout raises concerns about whether the agency is doing enough to get the public’s attention. (larslentz/iStock)

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“Am I in the right place?” I wondered. The EPA staffers were there, the leaflets arranged, the recorders rolling—but only a handful of the room’s hundred seats were filled. The EPA held a public meeting January 20th in Oakland, Calif., to ask for feedback on proposed changes to rules that guide how the agency deals with civil rights complaints. Just four people came to speak that Wednesday night, and three were with non-profits like Earthjustice that already regularly talk to the EPA.

Federal civil rights law says local governments should make sure companies don’t locate hazardous facilities like waste dumps and oil refineries disproportionately in communities of color that already live with more than their fair share of pollution. If local governments aren’t enforcing the law, the EPA has to step in. But the agency has a long history of delaying or dismissing complaints about civil rights violations. Now the EPA wants to throw out the rules that say the agency has to investigate all complaints and make a preliminary decision about whether there’s been a rights violation within six months. Given how crucial the issue is to communities across the U.S., I couldn’t believe I’d just walked into a nearly empty room.

It’s not that people don’t care; clean air fighter Jesse Marquez drove more than 350 miles from Los Angeles to testify that night. There was no one from Oakland at the Oakland meeting, in part, because the only people who heard about it were those already on the EPA’s radar. To the agency’s credit, officials technically didn’t have to have meetings. They could have posted the new rules online asking for feedback and left it at that, even though EPA guidelines for environmental justice say the agency should make sure the people affected by its decisions have a chance to speak up.

In the end, EPA officials decided to hold five open “listening sessions” in different states. An important first step—but what good are public meetings no one knows about? The EPA did some outreach before the meeting series, but failed to use its main tool—email listserves—until Earthjustice suggested the strategy in early January. These listserves reach only a few thousand environmental justice advocates nationwide who have signed up for notifications. Where was the outreach to people who missed the announcement on—not to mention those without a computer? How about access for people in the other 45 states?

The EPA’s own guidelines for making new rules say: Promoting meaningful involvement often requires special efforts to connect with populations that have been historically underrepresented in decision-making. These meetings were a great but sadly squandered chance for the EPA to rebuild public trust in its civil rights program.

Since there were so few comments, I had the opportunity to sit down with Lilian Dorka, deputy director of the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights. If anyone needed 30 minutes with Director Dorka, it was the communities in West Oakland worried about a new coal shipping terminal planned for the city’s waterfront. It was the people of Pittsburg, Calif., who are fighting the construction of two new power plants just 30 miles from where we were gathered and who didn’t know they could voice their concerns in person.

I asked Dorka why so few people came to the meeting and what the EPA is doing to make sessions more accessible. She said, “That’s not lost on us, and the fact that we … are working to extend the comment period by 30 days is an acknowledgment … that we need to draw in more people. We communicated with a number of advocates on a national level and told them [the meeting series] was coming; ‘Please tell people it’s coming.’ But you’ve got to use various methods for getting the word out there. And what’s really been impressed upon me having this opportunity to engage with folks, is that there are so many people willing to help us do that.”

Earthjustice and other non-profits have been helping to spread the word about the EPA’s public meetings in the communities we work with and to come up with new ideas for outreach. But non-profits can’t (and shouldn’t) be the government’s only means of publicizing an important chance for participation in the rulemaking process. EPA guidelines suggest using interactive tools like social media and teleconferencing. They recommend ads in local radio shows and newspapers, plus posters at grocery stores or community centers in rural areas. Reaching parents through their children’s school can be an effective step, as is connecting with other government agencies that have contacts in remote areas, such as Native American reservations, that the EPA hopes to reach.

Recognizing the dire need for more feedback, the EPA announced it will extend the comment period for proposed civil rights rule changes until March 12th. The agency has also scheduled one more public meeting, this one by video conference. We encourage you to dial into the meeting on March 1st at Howard University in Washington, D.C., from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. EST. Dial 1-877-887-8949 (Conference ID #58156799) to be connected.

We applaud the EPA for holding public meetings to discuss civil rights. It’s one way to begin addressing the agency’s dismal record of resolving complaints from communities in need. But until the EPA can bridge the yawning communications gap between the people who desperately want help and the staff who can provide it, Dorka and her colleagues will find themselves talking to more empty rooms.

A journalist and graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Heather was the associate editor from 2015–2017.