Celebrating Asian American Pacific Islander Environmental Achievements

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy presenting Charles Lee with the EJ Pioneer Award at the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) meeting on February 11, 2014

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy presenting Charles Lee with the EJ Pioneer Award at the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) meeting on February 11, 2014


As a Chinese-American and one of the individuals who played an instrumental role in our nation’s environmental justice movement, I believe that it is especially fitting that we use this year’s Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month to salute the many environmental contributions of the AAPI community. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Presidential Executive Order on environmental justice. Members of the AAPI community have contributed significantly to safeguarding our environment and promoting health and sustainability for our citizens.

As an advocate for environmental justice, I am excited about the various grassroots initiatives led by AAPI organizers over the last several decades that have aided traditionally underserved neighborhoods and communities of color. For example, AAPI community members in Richmond, California played a pivotal role in securing a multilingual warning system for local residents living in close proximity to a nearby oil refinery. Several years ago, Native Hawaiians organized a successful campaign to prevent polluters from continuing to dump waste in the Wai’nae coastal community. More recently, the Vietnamese-American community in East New Orleans, which is still rebuilding from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon disaster, initiated a sustainable aquaculture system that is contributing to the Gulf Coast’s economic development efforts.
In conjunction with their many successful grassroots environmental campaigns, the AAPI community has partnered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on several key initiatives related to the agency’s environmental justice and Community Action for a Renewed Environment (CARE) grant programs. Additionally, EPA has worked closely with the White House AAPI Initiative to address indoor air pollution affecting nail salon employees.

AAPI leaders have also been at the forefront in concretely participating in our nation’s dialogue on climate change. In affiliation with other groups, AAPI community leaders helped spearhead the passage of California’s SB 535, key climate legislation that mandates 25 percent of the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund proceeds benefit disadvantaged communities. By using CalEnviroScreen to identify disadvantaged communities, the state will make both socio-economic and environmental factors important considerations for determining where potentially billions of dollars in climate change resources will be devoted.

Because of the efforts of AAPI community members, people all across our nation are becoming more aware and knowledgeable about the imperative need to protect our environment. My EPA colleagues and I deeply appreciate the fact that AAPI leaders share our agency’s passion and responsibility to combat the ills that threaten the environment of all people.

Charles Lee is the Deputy Associate Assistant Administrator for Environmental Justice at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Mr. Lee is widely recognized as a true pioneer in the arena of environmental justice, as the principal author of the landmark report, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States.

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