A Call to Public Service: Civil Rights and Environmental Justice

As a child growing up in the 1950s in upstate New York, my days were filled with school, baseball, and playing in the woods. In my early years, I was mostly unaware of the broader social issues of the time.

Coming of age in the ‘60s, all of that changed.

The 24-hour news cycle didn’t exist yet, and it took more effort to keep up with current events back then. But as a young teenager, I began to pay more attention—and in 1963 the world came crashing in. The March on Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech, and President Kennedy’s assassination suddenly made me aware of a greater struggle beyond the world I knew.

As I started high school, I tried to understand how these events fit together—but I couldn’t comprehend why, in the United States of America, it was a struggle to pass a law to assure equal rights. But justice finally prevailed and the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964.

Like the civil rights movement, the environmental movement was made up of ordinary people who faced injustice and focused public attention to confront it. Unbearable smog in Los Angeles and a burning river in Ohio were a wake-up call to Americans that pollution threatens our health, and that we have a responsibility to fight it.

Our nation’s major environmental laws were passed in the early 1970s, but they too were a struggle, with many critics claiming they would kill the economy.

Now, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, hindsight helps us appreciate where these years of struggle have led. As I got older, I came to understand that any problem worth tackling is difficult in the moment—but that we should do things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Civil rights and environmental protection were hard-won out of the same desire for a stronger, more equal America. Both have transformed our nation for the better. Today, the air in Los Angeles is breathable. Fish swim again in Ohio’s Cuyahoga River. And despite the naysayers, the U.S. has cut air pollution 70 percent since 1970, while GDP has tripled.

But there’s still more work to do.

We have less pollution than we did in decades past, but the benefits of our collective cleanup are still unequal. Poor and underserved communities are still unfairly impacted by pollution—leading to illness and missed days of school and work that disadvantaged families can’t afford. Whether it’s smog that causes asthma, toxic chemicals that foul our water, or carbon pollution that fuels climate change, our job is to right that wrong.

That’s where civil rights and environmental protection converge today, and it’s why EPA’s commitment to environmental justice is so important. This summer, our country took a huge step forward. Although we limit pollutants like mercury, sulfur, and arsenic, currently, there are no limits on carbon pollution from power plants, our nation’s largest source. Under President Obama’s direction, the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan will cut carbon pollution from power plants 30 percent by 2030. At the same time, we’ll cut other dangerous pollutants like particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide.

During this 50th anniversary year of the Civil Rights Act, we must recommit to justice in all its forms, and for us at EPA, this means making sure everyone has equal access to the benefits of our work, regardless of who they are or where they come from. I know our team is up to the task.

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