Environmental Law

Looking Back and Moving Forward on Environmental Justice: Harvard Law School Environmental Law Society Hosts National Conference

By Sam Caravello, Gen Parshalle, and Cecelia Segal

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For decades, grassroots activists and their allies have worked to end environmental disparities between communities. The environmental justice movement, which grew out of the civil rights movement, questioned why low income communities and communities of color are beset by more polluting industries, suffer higher rates of asthma and cancer, and enjoy fewer environmental amenities like parks and access to nutritious food.

Twenty years ago, government began to respond. In 1994, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12898, which made Environmental Justice a national priority and gave activists hope that politically underrepresented communities overburdened by environmental harms would soon have a voice and vehicle for bringing about justice. State governments began responding, too. In 1994, only four states addressed environmental justice by law or executive order. Today, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have some form of environmental justice law, executive order, or policy, demonstrating recognition of environmental justice as a critical issue deserving government attention. For more details see EJ Milestones and Accomplishments: 1964-2014, a report by the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University.

In recognition of the 20th anniversary of President Clinton’s Executive Order, the Harvard Law School Environmental Law Society (HELS) will be hosting the National Association of Environmental Law Societies (NAELS) 26th Annual Conference on March 28–29, 2014, with the theme “Environmental Justice: Where Are We Now?” The conference will focus on three themes: progress on the goals of environmental justice, the social justice aspects of today’s national, and international environmental movements, and strategies to ensure that environmental justice is a priority in future environmental work.

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The two-day conference will feature speeches from leaders in the field, including former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson; Dr. Robert Bullard, known as the “father of environmental justice;” and Professor Gerald Torres, who, as counsel to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, worked with communities to help draft the President’s Executive Order on Environmental Justice. The conference will also feature seven panel discussions, each focused on an important aspect of environmental justice advocacy. Topics will range from strategies for achieving environmental justice to food justice and access to clean energy.

The EPA has been instrumental in helping HELS plan and prepare for the conference. In addition, EPA staff and other federal partners will facilitate breakout sessions on March 29. These sessions will engage conference attendees—students, academics, and community activists—in a productive discussion about milestones achieved in environmental justice and strategies for improvement and moving forward. We will share the outcomes of these discussions more broadly with federal representatives after the conference.

Although much progress has been made over the past twenty years, there is still plenty of work to be done. Living in an environmental justice community can have a severe impact on health and quality of life. Zip code is a strong predictor of health, and too often the heaviest environmental burdens and the highest percentage of low-income and minority residents are concentrated in the same zip codes. The California EPA reports that the 10% of California zip codes most burdened by pollution contain 32% of the state’s toxic cleanup sites. Meanwhile, a recent NAACP report notes that African Americans spent $41 billion on energy in 2009, but only held 1.1% of energy jobs and only gained .01% of the revenue from energy sector profits.

There is clearly a need for continued action to work towards achieving environmental justice goals. The 2014 NAELS Conference promises to make a valuable contribution to the conversation on environmental justice by reflecting on past challenges and successes in the movement, and by bringing together current and future advocates to plan for the next 20 years of work in the field.

To learn more about the 2014 NAELS Conference, please visit the HELS website for the conference. To learn more about environmental law at Harvard Law School, please visit the Environmental Law Program website.

About the Authors: Sam Caravello, Gen Parshalle, and Cecelia Segal are students at the Harvard Law School, class of 2015.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Making Sure Chemicals Around Us are Safe

By Jim Jones, Acting Assistant Administrator, OCSPP

Chemicals are found in most everything we use and consume— from plastics, to medicine, to cleaning products, and flame retardants in our furniture and clothing. They can be essential for our health, our well being, our prosperity and our safety— it’s no understatement to say that the quality of life we enjoy today would be impossible without chemicals. However, our understanding of chemical safety is constantly evolving and there remain significant gaps in our scientific knowledge regarding many chemicals and their potentially negative impacts on our health, and the environment.

While you may be familiar with the Clean Air and the Clean Water Acts— you may not be as familiar with the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the environmental statute enacted in 1976 to regulate all chemicals manufactured and used in the U.S. When TSCA was enacted, it grandfathered in, without any evaluation, the 62,000 chemicals in commerce that existed in 1976.

Unlike the laws for drugs and pesticides, TSCA does not have a mandatory program where the EPA must conduct a review to determine the safety of existing chemicals. TSCA is the only major environmental law that has not been modernized. The process of requiring testing through rulemaking chemical-by-chemical has proven burdensome and time consuming.

Compared to 30 years ago, we have a better understanding of how we are exposed to chemicals and the distressing health effects some chemicals can have – especially on children. At the same time, significant gaps exist in our scientific knowledge of many chemicals, including those like flame retardants. Increasingly, studies are highlighting the health risks posed by certain chemicals and recent media coverage has heightened public awareness about the safety of flame retardants.

As part of EPA’s efforts to assess chemical risks, we will begin evaluating 20 flame retardants in 2013 in order to improve our understanding of the potential risks of this class of chemicals, taking action if warranted, and identifying safer substitutes when possible. Over the years, EPA has also taken a number of regulatory and voluntary efforts, including negotiating the voluntary phase-outs of several toxic flame retardants. EPA’s review of and action on flame retardants has spanned over two decades and while these are important steps forward, the long history of EPA’s action on flame retardants is tied in no small part to the shortcomings of TSCA and stands as a clear illustration of the need for TSCA reform.

We have the right to expect that the chemicals found in products that we use every day are safe and provide benefits without hidden harm. It is critical that we close the knowledge gaps and provide this assurance under a reformed, 21st century version of TSCA.

About the author: Jim Jones is the Acting Assistant Administrator of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. He is responsible for managing the office which implements the nation’s pesticide, toxic chemical, and pollution prevention laws. The office has an annual budget of approximately $260 million and more than 1,300 employees. Jim’s career with EPA spans more than 24 years. From April through November 2011, Jim served as the Deputy Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. He has an M.A. from the University of California at Santa Barbara and a B.A. from the University of Maryland, both in Economics.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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The Rulemaking Gateway: A New Tool to Learn About Our Rules and Watch Their Progress

Before coming to EPA, I taught environmental law at Georgetown for 16 years. As a law professor, I was an avid consumer of information about EPA’s rules, their effects on communities of interest, and their status in the regulatory process. Unfortunately, I often found that it was often hard to find this kind of information at all, and close to impossible to find it all in one place.

This is why I’m so excited about our new Rulemaking Gateway. This is a new web site that makes EPA’s rulemaking process more transparent and easier to follow. It gives you the tools to understand how you can get involved in EPA’s priority rulemakings, how a rulemaking might affect you, and where each rule falls in our rulemaking process. As a former and future professor, I know this tool will be helpful to my students, my fellow academics, and to me. As a citizen, I see that the Gateway will be useful to me, my neighbors, and my community.

I hope you will find that the Gateway helps you to both track and participate in our rulemakings. I currently serve as EPA’s Regulatory Policy Officer, and in this role, I hear from many of our constituent groups. You have told me that you want to know what’s going on with EPA rules early and often. You want to know how you can get involved while the rule is still being drafted. Before I joined EPA, I wanted the same things. I wanted it to be easier to get a brief snapshot of an EPA rule and understand its evolution.

The Gateway does this and more. It gives you the opportunity to learn about a priority rule right from its start. It makes it easier than ever before to get up-to-date information as a rule goes through each phase on its way to being finalized. For example, EPA is working on a rule to investigate the potential hazards associated with lead weights used to balance the wheels on your car. Lead is highly toxic, especially to young children, and recent data shows that even very low levels of lead are associated with decreased intelligence, impaired neurobehavioral development, and behavioral effects. This rulemaking is in its early stages. We started working on it in fall 2009 and aren’t planning to ask for public comment until spring of 2011. Yet the Gateway already projects a date for the proposal; gives a description of how the rule might affect children’s health, environmental justice, small businesses, and sub-national governments; and provides a link where you can learn more about lead in paint, dust, and soil.

The Rulemaking Gateway is a major step forward in response to President Obama’s call to “establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.” I hope you’ll use the Gateway to learn about and get involved in EPA rulemakings. They affect you; they affect everyone. Help us protect human and environmental health by getting involved. And once you’ve experienced our Gateway, visit our Discussion Forum where you can tell us how to make it work even better for you.

About the Author: Lisa Heinzerling is EPA’s Associate Administrator for the Office of Policy, Economics, and Innovation (OPEI). She is on a leave of absence from Georgetown Law.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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