Evolving Visions of Environmental Justice: An EJ Pioneer’s Reflections on EO 12898 after Twenty Years
By Charles Lee
In 1994, I had the distinct honor of being invited to the Oval Office for President Clinton’s signing of Executive Order (EO) 12898 on environmental justice (EJ). As one of the persons who played a pioneering role in the birth of EJ, I want to highlight some of EO 12898’s impacts after twenty years. The EJ executive order was a product of community activism, which formed the core of the EJ movement. An abiding truth of EJ is that this community activism played a leading role in inspiring and catalyzing many truly visionary developments. This is an underlying thread for all the impacts highlighted.
First, EO 12898 helped to amplify the community action that inspired the EJ executive order’s development and issuance. The EJ movement’s inherent vision is building healthy, equitable and sustainable communities for all people. Communities of color, low-income neighborhoods and tribes led participatory democratic action that significantly influenced environmental decision-making. The list of examples is endless — from relocating fuel tank farms in East Austin, Texas, revitalizing overburdened neighborhoods in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to building “green zones” in California and Kansas. New models emerged, from local zoning ordinances to use of geographic information systems. Activists, practitioners and scholars of all ages and backgrounds have joined the quest. Among them was a young community organizer in the Altgeld Gardens housing project in Chicago’s polluted southside named Barack Obama.
Far sighted groups in all sectors of society have undertaken EJ initiatives. The public health field has incorporated EJ in significant ways, especially through community-based participatory research. Hundreds of universities now offer EJ courses or clinics, and a Ph.D. program in EJ now exists. States and local governments have legislation, policies or programs that address EJ. Whereas EJ was virtually unheard of in 1994, today it has an indelible foothold in the mainstream of society.
Second, EO 12898 provided direction on the integration of EJ in federal programs. Beginning in the 1990s, EJ advocates first articulated ideas on how to operationalize EJ in government programs. Through the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, they developed a public participation model plan and recommendations on using environmental statutes to address EJ issues. Their recommendations on cumulative risk led to the CARE program. They also laid the foundation for transforming brownfields redevelopment into community revitalization.
But it was not until the Obama Administration that EPA developed Plan EJ 2014, a comprehensive roadmap for ensuring that EJ is, in former Administrator Lisa Jackson’s words, “a part of every decision.” Plan EJ 2014 resulted from extensive input from communities and other stakeholders. Through Plan EJ 2014, basic guidance and tools for integrating EJ into EPA’s rulemaking, permitting, enforcement and community action efforts are being completed. The Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (IWG), established by EO 12898, was revitalized. Other agencies also issued important EJ guidance. The IWG is now developing basic analytical resources for considering EJ in the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) process. NEPA is a touchstone of EO 12898. In his Presidential Memorandum accompanying EO 12898, President Clinton identified it as an important tool for addressing EJ.
Progress has been painfully incremental and the goal of integrating EJ in federal programs will take tenacious and long-term effort. EJ truly remains the unfinished business of environmental protection. It is also important at this time to frame a larger vision for EO 12898 that includes proactively providing benefits essential for building wholesome prosperous communities, such as health care, housing, transportation, jobs, economic development, green space and food security. Moving in that direction will go a long way towards truly fulfilling the vision of EO 12898 by explicitly articulating how EJ is an integral part of the missions of all federal agencies.
Third, EO 12898 served as a catalyst for action by states on EJ. Today more than 40 states and territories have EJ legislation, policies or programs. The executive order also provided a template for state EJ efforts, which typically include a tandem of lead office, interagency process and/or advisory committee with a focus on public participation, environmental health or model projects.
Notable examples of state action include California’s pioneering Environmental Justice Act (SB 115), sponsored by former State Senator, U.S. Representative and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. This law led to efforts to address cumulative risks and toxic hotspots, including AB 1330. The state also developed CalEnviroScreen to identify overburdened areas and promote equitable distribution of resources. For example, it will help identify disadvantaged areas in which to invest Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund proceeds under SB 535. Minnesota passed legislation requiring cumulative risk assessment for an overburdened area in South Minneapolis. New York State passed the Article X Powerplant Siting Law that requires analysis of disproportionate environmental impacts and the state’s brownfields legislation created the Brownfields Opportunities Areas Program.
Community advocates played a significant role in shaping these efforts. These examples are harbingers of the future. They reflect the evolving vision of EJ advocates and indeed the future direction of policy making. EJ legislation or policy must go beyond EO 12898 and address substantive issues. We must do the hard work of incorporating EJ in multiple types of legislation or policies.
In conclusion, EO 12898 is only one step in a long journey. We must continuously evolve EJ vision and action to meet the opportunities and challenges of the 21st century. We have certainly come a long way since 1994 when most decision-makers were groping for answers to elementary questions like: “What is EJ?” Incredible opportunities have been created by all the good work of all parties. We must rise to the paradigmatic challenges created by climate change, increasing health and income disparities, equitable development, sustainable communities, globalization impacts such as goods (freight) movement, and other issues.Challenges with use of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act persist. EJ issues will be local, regional, national and international. If we are to rise to these challenges, we must nurture new generations of EJ leaders—knowledgeable about how to work in both communities and institutions, armed with stellar technical and legal skills, and most important, guided by audacious vision and commitment.
Charles Lee is the Deputy Associate Assistant Administrator for Environmental Justice at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Mr. Lee is widely recognized as a true pioneer in the arena of environmental justice. He was the principal author of the landmark report, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States. He helped to spearhead the emergence of a national environmental justice movement and federal action including Executive Order 12898, EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, and the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice.
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