25 Years of Environmental Justice at the EPA

by Danny Gogal

For a quarter of a century, the EPA has worked to address the environmental and public health concerns of minority, low-income and indigenous communities.  I have been blessed to be a part of this effort since its first steps. The Agency’s decision to establish the Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ), initially called the Office of Environmental

EPA Administrator Bill Reilly speaking to students on MLK Jr Day about EJ

EPA Administrator Bill Reilly speaking to students on MLK Jr Day about EJ

Equity, stemmed from the recommendations of the EPA Environmental Equity Work Group, which was formed by Administrator Bill Reilly in 1990 to “review the evidence that racial minority and low-income communities bear a disproportionate risk burden.”

As stated in the 1992 recommendations to Administrator Reilly, “any effort to address environmental equity [justice] issues effectively must include all segments of society: the affected communities, the public at large, industry, people in policy-making positions, and all levels and branches of government.”  This understanding continues to this day. As described in the Agency’s recently released draft FY 2018-2022 EPA Strategic Plan, the Agency is committed to “collaborate more efficiently and effectively with other federal agencies, states, sovereign tribal nations, local governments, communities, and other partners and stakeholders to address existing pollution and prevent future problems.”

Throughout these past twenty-five years, I have participated in almost every aspect of the Agency’s environmental justice program.  In the earliest days, we sought to create

OEJ staff in the early 1990s

OEJ staff in the early 1990s

an EPA definition of environmental justice; to establish the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (1993), a federal advisory committee comprised of various stakeholders to give us independent advice and recommendations for providing for environmental justice; to develop financial assistance programs for vulnerable communities, such as EJ Small Grants (1993); and to initiate federal interagency coordination and collaboration on environmental justice through the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice, as called for under Executive Order 12898 (1994).

In subsequent years, we have developed environmental justice strategies and priorities that consistently built upon our EJ progress and achievements.  Most recently, we developed EJSCREEN, the Agency’s nationally consistent screening and mapping tool for determining areas of potential environmental justice concern.  We clarified the Agency’s principles for addressing environmental justice of tribes, indigenous peoples and others living Indian country through the EPA Policy on Environmental Justice for Working with Federally Recognized Tribes and Indigenous Peoples.  We also finalized two separate documents focused on the Action Development Process and Technical Guidance of considering environmental justice during the development of regulations.

In collaboration with our co-regulators (states and tribes), vulnerable communities, and other interested stakeholders, the Agency has made considerable progress developing the infrastructure, creating the tools and identifying the opportunities for the Agency to provide environmental and public health protection for all Americans.  At the dawning of

Charles Lee, then OEJ Associate Director, at EJ Roundtable with the tribes in Alaska

Charles Lee, then OEJ Associate Director, at EJ Roundtable with the tribes in Alaska

the next 25 years of the EPA’s Environmental Justice Program, it is my hope that future generations will be able to look back at this point in time and be able to note the substantive and meaningful steps EPA took to improve the environment and public health of our country’s most vulnerable communities.  More importantly, I hope that they will also note how the efforts of so many inside and outside of EPA during these past 25 years resulted in meaningful progress and improvements in the lives, health, environments and economies of overburdened communities throughout the United States.

About the Author: Danny Gogal is the Tribal and Indigenous Peoples Program Manager for the Office of Environmental Justice, and leads the Agency’s work on international human rights.

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The Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination: An International Human Right

by Danny Gogal

“Sure, I’ll serve as EPA’s lead for international human rights agreements.” That was my response to my Office Director this past April, although I knew very little of what this new responsibility would entail. However, I was intrigued by the potential opportunities to engage the international community on issues of environmental justice.

Fortunately, I had some previous exposure to international human rights processes in 2010, when the U.S. Government (USG) initiated its first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of its human rights record. During this time, the USG was engaged in a concerted effort to meet with a wide range of interested parties throughout the country to get input and comments on efforts to provide for human rights. These included consultations with federally recognized tribal government officials and indigenous peoples.

Four years later, I found myself once again fully engrossed in our government’s preparation for its review by the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). For the first time, EPA was asked to participate as an official member of the U.S. delegation. Although the USG completed and submitted its report to the CERD in June 2013, the presentation to the UN wasn’t until August 2014. The environmental section of our report highlights the re-establishment and activities of the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (Section 28), a variety of environmental justice projects, such as federal agencies’ EJ strategies (Section 144), and EPA’s use of indigenous traditional ecological knowledge in a pollution permit decision (Section 173).

The day before our presentation, the U.S. delegation met with U.S.-based non-governmental organizations (NGO) and tribes at the United Nations’ Palais des Nations in Geneva. More than 80 individuals attended the three-hour meeting, which provided the opportunity for the NGOs, many of whom had submitted “shadow reports,” to share their perspectives on human rights in the United States and the USG’s implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). The meeting and interactions after the meeting proved to be beneficial to many of the NGOs, as well as the U.S. delegation.

The meeting with the CERD was held over a two-day period, consisting of two 3 hour sessions which opened with remarks from the US Ambassador for Human Rights, Keith Harper. The key environmental issues raised by the CERD included:

  • Water shut-offs in Detroit and Boston
  • Impacts of resources extraction on water and drinking water
  • Pollution in foreign countries caused by multi-national companies
  • Addressing environmental and public health impacts to minority, low-income and indigenous communities living along the coasts, particularly the Vietnamese communities in Louisiana and indigenous communities.
  • General concerns included need for:
    • USG to actually seek “transformation” to address discrimination
    • Greater education within the United States about the ICERD and its principles

In its initial report, the CERD also expressed concern about “the large number of tribes that remained unrecognized by the Federal Government and the obstacles to recognition…, and ongoing problems to guarantee the meaningful participation of indigenous people…” These concerns drew my attention given EPA’s newPolicy on Environmental Justice for Working with Federally Recognized Tribes and Indigenous Peoples, which speaks to how EPA works to provide the meaningful participation of state-recognized and non-recognized tribes, indigenous peoples, as well as others, in EPA’s decision making processes.

The CERD’s concluding observations highlighted their recommendation that the USG improve its protection of the environment and public health of minority, low-income and indigenous communities.

The upcoming USG UPR review, scheduled for May 11, 2015 also will likely bring attention to environmental justice and equitable development. This review also includes engaging with the public through various civil society consultations held throughout the country, including a consultation on environmental issues held October 7 of this year.

I am looking forward to once again engaging the NGOs, my fellow public servants, and the international community during this UPR process as we strive to identify ways to more effectively make a visible difference in vulnerable communities, particularly in environmental and public health protection. I also would be interested in hearing from NGOs about how valuable they find these international human rights processes. This work is proving to be a viable avenue for raising awareness and harnessing interest in environmental justice, both domestically and internationally.

About the author: Daniel Gogal has a public policy, environmental policy, and public administration background. He is currently serving as EPA’s lead for international human rights agreement, and has been working on tribal and indigenous peoples environmental policy and environmental justice issues for the past 28 years. He is the Tribal and Indigenous Peoples Program Manager for the Office of Environmental Justice, and has worked in various capacities for the Agency’s environmental justice program over the past twenty-two years.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.