Environmental Justice: From Strategic Planning to Action

By Gary S. Guzy

What does it take to integrate environmental justice principles into our programs and services?

The answers poured in enthusiastically from senior officials across the Federal Government at a recent special Deputy Secretary-level meeting of the Environmental Justice Interagency Working Group. I hosted this meeting along with U.S. EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe to mark the completion of an historic strategic planning effort.

Building on the Obama Administration’s commitment to strong environmental and health protections for all Americans, Federal agencies and offices have been revisiting and re-invigorating their approach to environmental justice. We set out our roadmap for concerted Federal Government action last year in an interagency Memorandum of Understanding, in which agencies committed to publishing environmental justice strategies and annual progress reports on their implementation of those strategies. When the deputies gathered at our meeting, the final strategies had just been released. To ensure their relevance and rigorous implementation, the strategies reflect public input, and they focus on engraining environmental justice principles in core Government practices and programs.

We agreed it was time to transition from strategic planning to action. As a Working Group, we decided that  to succeed, we must prioritize our actions and leverage existing resources as much as possible, including through developing and expanding public-private partnerships and sharing best practices across agencies. I jotted down the following examples to give you a sense of what this means in practice:

  • Deputy Secretary David Hayes described the Department of the Interior’s work with private companies to help provide renewable energy to remote Native Alaskan communities.
  • Assistant Secretary Howard Koh from the Department of Health and Human Services indicated that the health impact assessment tools that the Department is developing will enable Federal decision-makers across the Government to identify and consider public health impacts, including those that disproportionately apply to low-income and minority communities.
  • The Department of Energy and the Department of Housing and Urban Development are developing staff and stakeholder training on environmental justice principles which may be applicable to other Federal offices as well.

As someone who worked in the Federal Government when we first began considering environmental justice principles two decades ago, I am heartened by where we are headed today. With newfound direction and momentum, we are answering the call for systematic and durable applications of environmental justice principles to our programs and services, so we can see meaningful results.

About the author: Gary S. Guzy is Deputy Director of the Council on Environmental Quality.