Environmental Justice: Where Are We Now?

By Curt Spalding, EPA Region 1 Administrator

At the end of March, I was very pleased to participate in an Environmental Justice Conference at Harvard Law School to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Executive Order 12898 on EJ, and to dialogue with stakeholders across all backgrounds about the future for EJ.

spaldingEnvironmental justice is critical to EPA’s mission: to protect human health and the environment.  Unfortunately many low-income communities and communities of color continue to bear a disproportionate burden of environmental pollution and its health effects which create barriers to opportunity and a need for greater access to the benefits that healthy communities provide.

In Region 1 we continue to work hard to find new and innovative ways to incorporate EJ into all of our programs, policies and activities. Our programs and staff are helping improve communities through our Brownfields program; working to eliminate lead poisoning in our poorest communities; cleaning our urban rivers; encouraging environmental justice leadership among our state and federal partners and promoting climate change education in low-income and diverse communities, among many other efforts.

But while we continue to strive to make sure that we protect our most vulnerable communities, opportunities like the Environmental Justice Conference at Harvard remind me that there are many brilliant and hardworking people Untitled-1across the country coming up with many different innovative ways to advance environmental justice. I heard some very inspirational stories from activists like Hilton Kelley who shared his story about his community of Port Arthur, Texas and about its continued fight for clean air and water.  I also heard stories from community organizers like Mela Bush from the Greater Four Corners Action Coalition who helped bring public transportation options to the Fairmount Line in Boston.

At the conference we also talked about climate change, which is one of the biggest environmental challenges we face today, especially in Region 1. We have learned from storms like Hurricane Sandy that coastal areas need to begin building resilience in their communities, they need to adapt infrastructure and come up with mechanisms to handle sea level rise and storm surge.  City officials from Bridgeport shared their innovative approaches as a city taking ground breaking steps to improve resiliency and advance the community through an initiative called Rebuild by Design.  The city is taking design proposals to develop a resilience framework that focuses on protecting Bridgeport against climate change and flooding caused by storm surge and rainfall, while also stimulating environmental restoration, economic development, and neighborhood revitalization.

Click to watch keynote address by Dr. Robert Bullard

Click to watch keynote address by Dr. Robert Bullard

A key theme that came out of the conference was to look ahead.  Conference participants focused on answering tough questions, such as how we can collectively make visible differences in EJ communities now and into the future.  From my experiences at the conference and from talking with these many EJ advocates and stakeholders reinforced for me how important it is to holistically look at how a community can be sustained and how we can work collaboratively to help a community make progress.  It’s about capacity building, and using strong networks of people to move projects forward.  It’s about education and empowering communities.

I was excited to see these forward thinking and innovative approaches across the country, and I know that all of us that attended from Region 1 are grateful for the opportunity. It certainly reminded me how important it is to gather all of the brilliant minds out there to share their innovative solutions to advance environmental justice.

About the author: Since joining the EPA leadership team in February 2010, Spalding has been leading a holistic approach to finding environmental solutions in New England. He’s emphasized efforts in community engagement, sustainability, environmental justice and green economy. Spalding has focused our efforts in the region on three cross-cutting initiatives: climate change, stormwater and community prosperity.