Addressing Environmental Justice Concerns in Indian Country

By Daniel Gogal

He had just arrived home after driving straight from DC to his reservation in the southwest. He tells me about his visit with government officials and questions whether or not his efforts will result in federal or tribal government action. His goal is to ensure his neighbors  in his remote area of the reservation are informed about the dangers of using a local pond for livestock watering, which is contaminated  by runoff from a former uranium mine when it rains. This concern is like many I encounter that deal with serious issues affecting the public health and safety of indigenous communities across the country.

Over the past twenty years, I have been contacted by many tribal members, indigenous organizations and tribal government representatives about environmental and public health threats facing their communities and about the need to develop lasting, sustainable solutions. The problems are complex and the solutions require involvement from a wide range of federal and tribal agencies and other indigenous stakeholders. This makes addressing the concerns  a challenge, but a challenge we need to rise to the occasion to meet.

Through EPA’s Plan EJ 2014, we are working collaboratively to achieve environmental justice.  In 2011, we initiated a process to develop tribal and indigenous people’s environmental justice guiding principles and policy to clarify how EPA will work with the 565 federally-recognized tribes and indigenous stakeholders to address environmental justice issues.

To develop these principles/policies, we formed the Indigenous Peoples Work Group, of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, and EPA’s Tribal and Indigenous Peoples Environmental Justice Work Group,comprised of agency staff.

Now, EPA is seeking comments on the four focus areas currently planned for the guiding principles/policy. A working draft of the guiding principles and policy are expected to be available for review by tribes and the public in July 2012.

We look forward to receiving your input on the four focus areas and on the draft policy when becomes available this summer. Just like concerns raised by the southwest tribal member who recently traveled to the nation’s capital to talk about the pollution problems facing his community, we need to hear from you. Your comments will help improve EPA’s ability to respond to your concerns about environmental justice issues impacting tribal communities.

About the author:  Daniel Gogal has a public policy, environmental policy, and public administration background and has worked on tribal and indigenous environmental policy and environmental justice issues for over 25  years.  He is the Tribal Program Manager for the Office of Environmental Justice, where he has worked for the past nineteen years.