Environmental Compliance and Enforcement in Underserved Neighborhoods

By Cynthia Giles

Far too often in this country we see minority, low-income and indigenous communities overburdened by exposure to environmental pollution. They can see, feel, and smell the air, water and chemical pollution in their neighborhoods every day. Those environmental challenges impact public health and can limit the economic possibilities of struggling communities. Addressing these issues is a top priority for EPA and environmental enforcement, the focus of my office, is one key way we are taking action to reduce pollution in communities most in need of the work we do.

Ensuring compliance with our nation’s environmental laws and taking enforcement actions against companies or individuals when they do not follow those laws is important for three reasons:1) it levels the playing field for companies and individuals that comply with the law; 2) it ensures that public health in communities does not suffer because some facilities or individuals choose not play by the rules; and 3) it offers an opportunity, through legal requirements, to install pollution controls, clean-up contaminated sites, or conduct projects to address local health and environmental issues.

For example, last December, my office reached a settlement with NEORSD, a stormwater and wastewater treatment facility serving the Cleveland area. In the settlement, NEORSD agreed to install sewer overflow pollution controls which the sewer district estimates will lead to more than 30,000 jobs in the Cleveland area and return $2.63 for every $1.00 invested. The settlement also allows the sewer district to use of green infrastructure projects to capture water. They will engage the community to decide which neighborhoods and vacant lots to revitalize and which types of projects to use, for example: rain gardens, urban croplands and permeable pavement.

Settlements like these provide real benefits to affected communities and can help turn an environmental violator into an environmental leader. As a lawyer, an advocate for justice, and a mother, I work every day to protect our children and our families from exposure to harmful pollution. Along with many other women in the federal government, including EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Lisa Garcia  — EPA’s lead advocate for environmental justice — and Ignacia Moreno — my counterpart at the Department of Justice, we are taking concrete steps to ensure that every American has the foundations they need for success: air that is healthy to breathe, water that is clean to drink, and land free of toxic chemicals.

About the Author: Cynthia Giles is Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance

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