Achieving Tangible Results for Vulnerable Communities

Charles Lee, Senior Policy Advisor
Office of Environmental Justice, US EPA

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued its Environmental Justice FY2017 Progress Report today. It is noteworthy that 2017 marked the 25th anniversary of the founding of EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice. The accomplishments highlighted in the report affirm through action how, after a quarter century of progress, environmental justice (EJ) is deeply ingrained in EPA’s fabric.

An overarching focus of the report is demonstrating tangible results in minority, low-income, tribal and indigenous communities. Here are four results that illustrate progress from the past year:

  1. As EPA’s environmental justice program matured over the past two decades, it grappled with the difficult task of demonstrating environmental outcomes in vulnerable communities. EPA developed measures for several significant national EJ challenges, one of which was fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5). In FY2017, EPA documented that the percentage of low-income people living in areas meeting the PM2.5 National Ambient Air Quality Standards increased from 43% during the baseline period of 2006-2008 to 92% in (2014-2016).
  2. EPA similarly provided national results for enforcement actions and the environment benefits of such actions in areas with potential EJ concerns. For example, 35% of the 217 million pounds of pollutants estimated to be reduced, treated or eliminated from enforcement actions in FY2017 were in such areas. EPA is able to provide these results because the Agency systematically reviews all enforcement actions for EJ considerations. The report also highlights the importance of the EJSCREEN mapping and screening tool, which provides the starting point for these assessments.
  3. EPA and its federal, state, tribal and local government partners continue to collaborate to benefit communities. The Omaha Lead Superfund cleanup, affecting over 175,000 persons in a 27 square-mile area, reduced the percentage of children with elevated blood lead levels from 25% in 1999 to 0.3% in 2017. Other examples of beneficial collaborations are the improved air quality around ports, rail yards and freight distribution centers from $23.8 million in Diesel Emissions Reduction Act funding and the number of community drinking water systems returned to compliance with lead and arsenic standards in the Pacific Southwest.
  4. The report highlights the many ways EPA supports communities as they travel their own journeys to community health and revitalization. For example, with an EJ grant, “Project Oka” helped the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma maintain clean sources of water. An Urban Waters partnership assisted residents of the Martin Pena Channel, one of the poorest and most environmentally overburdened neighborhoods in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in creating an urban farm.

These results are but a few of the many accomplishments highlighted in this year’s progress report. Many of the examples required decades of effort, and are a testament to the long-standing commitment, innovation and hard work of the EPA staff who do this work on a day-to-day basis. They provide lessons for how we can all work together more effectively to address disproportionate environmental impacts, health disparities, and economic distress in our nation’s most vulnerable communities so they are cleaner, healthier and more prosperous places to live, work, play and learn.

Read a full copy of EPA’s FY2017 Environmental Justice Progress Report, as well as previous reports.

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