Environmentalism Takes a Turn toward Civil Rights

June 12, 2013

The elitist environmental movement has always had a problem with its limited appeal to low-income minorities, few of whom identify with the upscale, Volvo-driving profile of environmental organizations' typical membership. In the early days of the movement, civil rights leaders were often opposed to environmentalism. Richard Hatcher, the black mayor of Gary, Indiana, told Time magazine at the time of the first Earth Day in 1970: "The nation's concern with the environment has...distract[ed] the nation from the human problems of black and brown Americans," says Steven F. Hayward, the Thomas Smith Fellow at the Ashbrook Center.

While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has paid lip service to environmental justice (even under President George W. Bush) it has avoided incorporating the idea into the permit process, which is the key choke point of the EPA's regulatory powers. Environmental justice is about to receive a significant boost from the Obama administration.

  • Last month, the EPA released for public comment an 81-page "Draft Technical Guidance for Assessing Environmental Justice in Regulatory Analysis," and although the document says it "does not impose any legally binding requirements," there is no doubt the "guidance" will be used in developing new EPA regulations that will have subsequent effects on permit applications.
  • The "technical guidance" lays out a detailed framework for assessing the demographic and racial impact of regulations, such as how to identify minority populations at higher health risk.
  • Repeated studies have shown that higher levels of environmental chemicals in humans correlate more closely with incomes than with race or location.
  • A correlation with income is a very different matter than race.
  • Correlations between low incomes and poor health outcomes exist on a broad range of risk measures beyond environmental exposures.

The EPA is probably on doubtful legal ground to incorporate disparate impact analysis directly into the regulatory process, which is why the report disclaims any official legal status for this initiative. But the report gives away the game that the EPA is creating when it calls for the "meaningful involvement" of potentially affected people in the rulemaking and permit process. This is code for providing official "findings" of environmental injustice in the public comment portions of permit applications. The EPA won't do the dirty work directly, but activist groups will be empowered to ratchet up their game.

If the EPA wants to help low-income and minority populations, it should stick to promoting technologies that reduce pollution for everyone, rather than making environmental issues about racial justice.

Source: Steven F. Hayward, "Environmental Justice, 'EPA Style,'" The American, June 9, 2013.

 

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