Government by the People: Looking Back at the NEJAC After 20 Years
By Richard Moore
20 years ago, when I was appointed as one of the first members to the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), I remember very clearly we decided that we wanted to make this a different type of government advisory council. The NEJAC was established by the EPA in order to obtain advice and recommendations from a diverse group of stakeholders involved in environmental justice. This was a big deal for the environmental justice community because it helped give legitimacy to the decades-long fight for the EJ movement. And so when the first board of the NEJAC convened we made a decision that we were going to make this advisory council truly representative of the people.
We wanted to lift up the voices of the grassroots, and make sure that the issues that were being addressed by the Council were the issues that people on the ground in our communities were facing. When we convened our first meetings, we made it clear to communities across the country that we were going to make sure that their voices would be heard. And sure enough, in those early meetings hundreds of concerned residents showed up to testify about the problems their communities were facing, and to hear what EPA and other Federal agencies were doing to address the disproportionate impacts that were happening across the country.
I remember the revelations that people had when they heard others from cities and towns far away talking about the same problems they were facing in their own backyards. It was transformative. The people in these meetings learned that the pollution in their neighborhoods wasn’t an accident, it was happening everywhere and in some cases it was deliberate. More importantly, they also saw what types of solutions were being tested across the country to address these injustices.
From these public comments the Council also started forming recommendations to deal with the disproportionate pollution problems we were facing. We proposed to the EPA a grant program that specifically focused on providing financial support to benefit communities with environmental justice concerns. We also recommended EPA provide expert support to help give communities equal representation when controversial permits or government actions were being proposed. These recommendations were the foundations for the EJ Small Grants Program and the Technical Assistance Grants.
In 1995, the EPA and NEJAC co-sponsored a series of dialogues across the country that provided an opportunity for environmental justice advocates and residents of impacted communities to give input on revitalization of abandoned properties called “brownfields.” Out of these public dialogues, the NEJAC developed “The Search for Authentic Signs of Hope” report. A consistent theme throughout the report was the importance of seeking and including communities in decisions and planning. Taking these recommendations into consideration, EPA took a number of actions to improve its Brownfields program. For example, EPA agreed to create a Brownfields Job Training Grants Program, which now spends over $3 million annually in low income and minority communities.
When we first convened the NEJAC 20 years ago we didn’t want to play by the rules. We wanted to make a new type of advisory council that would vigilantly fight for the rights of every resident to be heard by the government. Over the years the Council has elevated community concerns and made recommendations on many vitally important issues; from school air toxics monitoring and gulf coast restoration, to US/Mexico border issues and tribal consultation. Let’s hope that the Council maintains that spirit, and continues to expand the conversation around environmentalism over the next 20 years.
About the author: Mr. Moore served as the Executive Director of Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (Southwest Network), in Albuquerque, New Mexico, from 1993 to 2010. Mr. Moore has served on numerous government and nongovernmental committees and panels, including chair of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), and member of the National Council of Churches EcoJustice Task Force and the Congressional Black Caucus National Environmental Policy Commission. In 2010 Moore transitioned from director of SNEEJ to Senior Advisor. He currently is the program director for Los Jardines Institute in Albequerque New Mexico.
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