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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Environmental Injustice

Air Date: Week of

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According to a new study by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, government agencies aren't sufficiently considering the impact of policies on minority and low-income communities. Host Steve Curwood discusses the report with commission chair Mary Frances Berry.


CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

If you’re black or Latino or just plain poor, you’re more likely to suffer health effects from polluting industries and other environmental hazards in your neighborhood. That’s why President Clinton signed an Executive Order to promote environmental justice nearly a decade ago. But today, according to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, the federal government is not effectively enforcing the measure.

These conclusions are based on a year-long assessment of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, the Interior, and Transportation. Mary Frances Berry, who chairs the commission, says she’s concerned these agencies have a long list of deficiencies.

BERRY: In the last few years, they have not made environmental justice a central part of their mission. That is, they do not, in fact, review the impact of decisions that they make on these poor and minority communities when they approve or clear people for certain siting decisions that are made at the local level. They don’t bother to ask the right questions, that’s one thing. The other is there are complaints filed by community groups on behalf of those who are affected by pending decisions, and the complaints are often backlogged without any response to them in a timely fashion.

The other thing is that the agencies don’t often make sure that community groups can participate in giving advice when decisions are made in the way that they’re supposed to. And even when community groups are able to participate, they often don’t have the information. Many of them are under-resourced, they don’t have the experts, and they draw as much information as they can, whereas in the law there are provisions to provide some technical assistance to these groups. And finally, where the agencies fall short is they don’t really analyze and assess their behavior. That is, what are they doing, why are they doing it this way, what are the impacts on the people involved, and how could they do it better?

CURWOOD: What does the Civil Rights Commission believe has been the resulting damage to minority communities in the wake of this failure to fully implement the Executive Order on environmental justice?

BERRY: Well, if you look at the health care disparities that exist among communities of color in this country, in particular, poor people in these communities – and these are disproportionately poor communities, we’re talking about Latinos, African Americans, and Native American Indians – you will see that the illnesses that they suffer from, including asthma and including all kinds or respiratory illnesses, stress, high blood pressure, you name it, all of these illnesses you find disproportionately in those communities.

And the health research, not done for the purposes of environmental justice, but just done on the health issues, document the impact of things like certain kinds of landfills, and toxic waste, and certain sewage disposal processes, as well as even noise. There are big studies now being done on the impact of lots and lots of noise on the health and the stress levels and the blood pressure. What we really are saying is that we ought to equal out these hazards. We know that the price of civilization and the price of progress is to have factories and businesses and all kinds of enterprises, and we, as human beings, also throw up a lot of garbage. But the point is to minimize having a disproportionate impact only on some people, based on how poor they are or what color they happen to be.

CURWOOD: Why do you think that the order issued by President Clinton around environmental justice seems to have such little teeth when it comes to enforcing it?

BERRY: Well, the main thing that the order relied on was leadership on the part of the people in the agencies, and that Bill Clinton and OMB, and other government agencies that have oversight, would hold them accountable, keep their feet to the fire. It is fair to say that since the Clinton administration, no one in the administration since has done that. It is public knowledge that environmental issues are not a major concern of the Bush II administration. In fact, Christie Whitman, when she was at the EPA, articulated her desire to implement the Clinton order and to keep it on the front burner. Well, she’s not there anymore. I noted, even yesterday, there was some statement that Bush made about the environment – pollution – and he sort of added to it some caveat about jobs which he’s concerned about because the unemployment rate, but it has nothing to do with the issue. It’s just throwing up sand and dust in peoples’ eyes. So, there’s an absence of leadership in the political arena, in the administration, on this issue.

CURWOOD: Mary Frances Berry is chairperson of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

BERRY: Thank you very much.



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