Environmental Injustice

How the USEPA and State Environmental Programs fail at protecting poor communities of color

Matthew Ganz
Jan 29 · 10 min read

Environmental Justice: As is the case with most buzzwords, the draw to the cause it represents can be both visceral and immediate, but the lasting impact is often shallow and short-lived. In all of its stated nobility of purpose, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Environmental Justice (EJ) initiative, which is designed to protect vulnerable communities from the dangers of environmental pollution, is failing.

The EPA and States have well-crafted EJ policies. Most describe plans and policies to actively assist, engage, and train poor communities of color in environmental decisions that affect their community. However, only minimal adherence to these guidelines is actually required by Law or Regulation.

Many developments and projects that affect EJ communities are those that pollute (read: incinerators, transfer stations, and auto body shops). In non-EJ communities, generating opposition to unwanted projects in a community is easy to do. Oftentimes, just by showing up and making lawful demands a community can thwart a developer’s efforts to get an unwanted project approved.

So, when the Environmental Regulators aren’t doing their best to engage the community, they are aiding private industry in their quest to locate these unwanted projects in EJ communities. Less outreach means less people at the meetings, which means less opposition. Less opposition means more polluting sites in a neighborhood, which means more cumulative pollution. In this way, the Regulators become complicit in the pollution of these communities by their very negligence.

Poor communities of color unfairly shoulder the cumulative burden of environmental pollution and that is just another symptom of institutionalized racism, in this instance perpetuated by the EPA and State Regulators. As with other efforts to address similar symptoms, one finds a legacy of tokenism and politics of inclusion that yields very little meaningful change.

What are EJ and EJ populations?

As an example, let’s look at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s (MassDEP) website where EJ policy is prominently featured. An EJ population is defined as a neighborhood where the following conditions are true:

  • 25% of the households have an annual median household income that is equal to or less than 65% of the statewide median
  • 25% of its population is Minority or identifies as a household that has English isolation

According to the MassDEP, these are the people most at risk of being unaware or unable to participate in environmental decision making. As a result of this group’s vulnerabilities, the MassDEP has defined certain tenets in their EJ policy. Here are some excerpts:

  • Environmental justice is . . . based on the principle that all people have a right to be protected from environmental hazards . . . regardless of race, color, national origin, income, or English language proficiency. Environmental justice is the equal protection and meaningful involvement of all people . . .
  • Meaningful Involvement means that all neighborhoods have the right and opportunity to participate in environmental decision-making, including needs assessment, planning, implementation, etc…
  • Neighborhoods are enabled and administratively assisted to participate fully through education and training, and are given transparency/accountability by government with regard to community input, and encouraged to develop environmental, energy, and climate change stewardship.

Clearly, a lot of thought was given to these words. By all accounts, reading this positions the MassDEP as a reliable ally, a proactive partner of EJ communities in keeping them safe from environmental harm, and an always-listening ear to address their concerns. That could not be further from the truth.

Seeing is Believing

Here’s a look at an interactive map from the MassDEP’s website that shows where these EJ populations are located. This is all derived from census data:

All sections that are colored in show EJ populations/census tracts across the state; the legend indicates that the darker colors are where communities meet more of the following criteria; minority population, low income, and minority English speaking households. Now let’s start layering on the data for waste facilities and contaminated sites.

The image below shows Activity and Use Limitation (AUL) sites. These are places where there is somewhere between residual and higher-level contamination left in place. But it’s being managed in place and contained appropriately, according to the EPA. The risk from contamination is being managed and development can happen on these sites. Notice how these contaminated sites are clustered around the EJ populations. There is no notification to abutters when an AUL site is proposed. Often, area residents are unaware of these AULs.

The following image shows DEP Tier classified 21E sites. These are places where hazardous materials have been found. Again, notice their proximity to EJ populations.

This final images shows the location of large transfer stations that are also situated around EJ communities.

It’s not a coincidence that all of these facilities are collocated near vulnerable EJ populations; this is by design. The policies of the EPA, with its longstanding initiative to EJ, has not done much to mitigate this issue.

How Early EPA Policy Begets a Need for Environmental Justice

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created in 1970, during the Nixon administration. Its formation was in response to some of the most egregious industrial pollution accidents of the era. Each state siphoned employees from their respective Departments of Health to form their own Department of Environmental Protection bureaus.

Initial regulations were developed resulting in decisions about which towns would have their ground water protected and cleaned up and, of greater consequence, which towns would not have their groundwater protected. It should come as no surprise that most urban communities of color were left with unprotected groundwater while other wealthier, white communities were. These poor communities had water pipes installed to fetch clean water from reservoirs sometimes 90 miles away (note: Quabbin Reservoir, Massachusetts), resulting in a higher price paid for water. This is an unfair burden on the people who can afford it the least. This continues to this day with the MassDEP making cleanup decisions based on decades-old groundwater quality maps.

The early partners of the State Regulators were real estate developers, a bad faith bonding if there ever was one. Obviously, the primary concern of real estate developers was construction and not environmental protection. They had no vested interest in the well-being of the communities where they were doing development. Their interests were in direct conflict with those of resource protection.

Because of this, many poor communities of color have contaminated groundwater to this day. Conveniently, at least for the State Regulators (who are responsible for the permitting of new waste processing stations), the existence of contaminated ground water is a handy prerequisite for deciding where waste processing sites are placed these days. This cycle keeps pollution and waste in vulnerable communities.

Today’s EJ Policy and Priorities

In Massachusetts, EJ policy was originally issued in 2002. As things progressed slowly, Governor Deval Patrick then issued an executive order in 2014 to encourage sustained efforts then and into the future. They assigned an EJ person to every state bureau of the DEP. These people were to be consulted on every project the bureau tackles. The results of these actions have been ineffectual.

The engagement and protection of EJ populations are a stated priority for the MassDEP and outreach to these communities should be aligned with the intention that is so clearly defined in their EJ policy. It is here, in this singular initiative, where the MassDEP fails spectacularly.

Ineffective Community Outreach

Most of the failure is because of ineffective outreach. The MassDEP is required by its EJ policy to reach out to communities when environmental regulations, policies, and decisions are being made in their area. From their own policy, every effort should be made by the EPA to engage, collaborate, and train these communities on the plans that are being proposed in their neighborhoods. However, that’s just the policy, the rules allow minimal notification to these EJ populations. For example, the public notice publicizing a meeting may be behind a pay-wall; meaning, a newspaper that people must buy. This can be cost-prohibitive and is really not the best way to reach people. There are community advocacy groups that can better reach people through churches and by other means. But they are rarely contacted because it means more work. State Regulators do not go the extra mile to do outreach.

To make matters worse, when meetings are set, they are often scheduled purposefully at inconvenient times, i.e. mid-day, mid-week. This can make it difficult for people in minority communities to take off work or find childcare. This is a dubious way of removing opposition to a proposal. If the MassDEP was sincere in its intent they could arrange meetings in the evening, offer childcare, and make a video recording of the meeting. However, any meeting held at any time is following the letter of the law and, as such, the MassDEP can claim that public notice was conducted. In this way, they keep themselves covered and sites that pollute can easily slide into poor communities of color. This is how current rules allow an unfair burden to be created in EJ communities.

The Harm That Follows

Apart from unprotected ground water, people in poor communities of color tend to suffer from more asthma and heart disease. This may be due, in part, to pollution standards being set per site and not per community. What does this mean? Let’s say the standards per site are how many parts per billion you can pollute. If each site can pollute up to 1,000 parts per billion then adding more sites in a community increases the cumulative pollution affecting the overall health of nearby residents. There is no cap on the number of sites in a community.

As a result of the the MassDEP’s limited adherence to its EJ policy, its poor community outreach and existing groundwater classifications, it is easier to place incinerators, waste processing plants, auto body shops, etc… in poor communities of color. The end result is more sites that are contaminating the community. Because allowable pollution levels are set individually and not per community, the cumulative effect of pollution can be exponential. More sites means more pollution.

Old regulations need to be revisited. A note to cap pollution per community instead of per site should be seriously considered.

The NIMBY phenomenon

Not.In.My.Backyard. Essentially, this is a movement that keeps unwanted facilities out of primarily wealthy, white neighborhoods. These communities don’t want the values of their homes to be negatively affected by incinerators, transfer stations, and other waste processing plants, not to mention prisons. Unlike poor communities of color, they have the resources (time and energy) to engage and battle these projects. They can show up on a Tuesday afternoon because they can take the time off of work or they can easily find childcare. These options aren’t as readily available in minority communities.

As a result, many developers who face resistance in building waste processing plants in wealthy, white communities will go to poor communities of color because people won’t show up to dissent. They can count on almost no opposition. It’s an inconvenient truth that allows a legacy of environmental pollution to continue to affect these areas; and the EPA is there every step of the way.

The Type of Support That Matters

In Massachusetts, there are community advocacy groups that perform effective outreach to EJ populations, like Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE) and the Green Justice Coalition. These groups need financial support; however, even more importantly, they need technical support. For example, someone who can read and understand a report on incinerators and convey potential side effects and dangers to the community.

On a positive note, many private companies are stepping up and chipping in to support these groups. Larger employers often have a charitable arm that provides financial support to local, community-based organizations. Some also organize day-long outings into EJ communities for their employees to clean up different sites, etc…

But pay close attention to how you support these groups. Day-long outings can be seen as a performative act. And, though money does help for operational costs, meaningful engagement can be more about finding and providing the needed expertise to these groups on an ongoing basis. The type of support you provide matters as much as how much you give.

Another thing progressive companies do to support their employees is to create groups where people of a shared identity, culture, sexuality, or personal interests can engage to discuss their professional and personal experiences. It’s a nice perk that doesn’t cost the company much. Even though most of their focus is on opportunities within the company, there is often outreach to communities. Unfortunately, these groups tend to get limited funding. In this regard, they can appear as a product of the politics of inclusion rather than as a genuine effort to support their employees causes.

These companies can take a step in the right direction by engaging local firms where there are subject matter experts that can provide the kind of help that is needed by these community groups. In addition, these larger companies sometimes do have political action committees where they encourage their employees to engage in lobbying efforts on their behalf. One idea may be to have these PACs support state candidates that heavily back bold environmental initiatives supported by their own employee groups.

Focusing on how external actors can change their community engagement to something more meaningful shouldn’t take away from the failures of the EPA to protect those whose duty it is to keep safe. Non-profit community advocacy groups have popped up because the EPA isn’t doing what they said they would. Corporate law firms like the Conservation Law Foundation, which deems to protect New England’s environment for the benefit of all, sue the MassDEP because they don’t enforce their own policies. If the EPA was doing their job correctly then none of this extra stuff would be needed.

The EPA and State Regulators are not a true partner of these EJ populations. These communities need real allies — proactive people who can anticipate their needs, assist with day-to-day operations, plan for future initiatives, and get them the expertise they need on a continual basis. If the EPA and State Regulators are not going to do it then stop saying you’re going to do it. To those that are vulnerable, a false sense of security is worse than a lie.

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