Civil Rights Agency Blasts EPA for Weak Environmental Justice Record

Calling the agency slow and ineffective at responding to environmental discrimination complaints, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issues a strong rebuke.

The EPA has been criticized for how it handles coal ash complaints
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy testifies during a Congressional hearing on February 11, 2016. The EPA has come under fire for how it handles environmental discrimination concerns. Credit:Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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A new report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights charges the Environmental Protection Agency with doing too little about environmental discrimination against low-income and minority communities, with one commissioner calling the agency “practically toothless” in dealing with the issue.

The Commission on Civil Rights, an independent, bipartisan agency,  focused on the EPA in its annual statutory enforcement report that is sent to Congress and the White House. The new assessment, published Sept. 23, criticizes environmental regulators’ failure to account for environmental justice when reviewing complaints and developing new policies.

The report said the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights has received about 300 environmental discrimination complaints since 1993, many processed months to years behind schedule. The agency has only made one preliminary finding of discrimination, in a case involving a California company’s use of pesticides based on a complaint more than 10 years old. Even the settlement of that case was criticized because the agency didn’t consult with the community that had filed the complaint.

Michael Yaki, a commissioner at the civil rights agency, called the EPA “practically toothless in its ability to protect the poorest and minority population of our country from things such as coal ash.”

Coal ash, which contains heavy metals that can threaten human health, is regulated as non-hazardous “solid waste” under federal rules. The commission said it should be classified as “special waste,” which would require the EPA to conduct a risk assessment and determine if the waste should be regulated as hazardous.

The report also recommended the EPA include communities in complaint-related settlement discussions. Relating to coal ash, it recommended the EPA identify coal ash facilities in low-income and minority communities, provide assistance to them in enforcing a 2015 rule for safe coal ash disposal and storage and test drinking water wells around certain coal ash disposal sites.

The review is a follow-up to the civil rights agency’s parallel investigation in 2003 of the EPA and three other organizations.

The Commission on Civil Rights said the EPA’s track record on environmental justice has not improved enough.

“First, EPA continues to struggle to provide… relief to communities of color impacted by pollution. EPA’s deficiencies have resulted in a lack of substantive results that would improve the lives of people living in already overly-burdened communities,” the report said.

“Second, EPA does not take action when faced with environmental justice concerns until forced to do so. When they do act, they make easy choices and outsource any environmental responsibility onto others.”

The EPA responded by defending its record on tackling discrimination and said it already has plans to improve.

“EPA has a robust and successful national program to protect minority and low-income communities from pollution,” Mustafa Ali, a senior adviser to EPA chief Gina McCarthy, said in a statement. “There are still important challenges to address, so we developed our EJ 2020 action agenda to build on successful strategies to expand the scope and impact of our work in these communities. Despite [our] conveying this progress to the Commission previously, it is largely absent in their report.”

Environmental advocates praised the assessment, which they described as accurately capturing the flaws in the EPA’s process.

Robert Bullard, the dean of the School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, told InsideClimate News “the report is basically damning,” and echoes the agency’s 2003 assessment.

“This report is … a reaffirmation that it’s long overdue that communities be given equal protection,” he said. “And we’re not talking about what people perceive to be a problem, we are talking about real problems.”

The civil rights agency held briefings with EPA staff, industry members, environmental justice experts and community members to primarily evaluate EPA’s compliance with Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which forbids any recipient of federal financial assistance to discriminate on the basis of  race, color or national origin––and with the 1994 Executive Order 12,898, which orders federal focus on the environmental and human health impacts of federal actions on certain communities.

The civil rights agency recommended that Congress provide the EPA with more money to add staff and resources to respond to environmental justice issues.