EPA’s Office of Civil Rights: Improving our Procedures, Education, and Expertise to Prevent Discriminatory Injustice

EPA is committed to building a model civil rights program. Our Office of Civil Rights (OCR) exists to protect people from discrimination inside and outside EPA who are affected by agency programs, polices, and activities. OCR enforces statutes related to discrimination, one of which is Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in programs or activities operated by recipients of federal financial assistance.

OCR’s External Compliance program has faced challenges in the past resolving Title VI cases. However, in the last 18 months, EPA has installed new leadership in OCR, developed a strategy to manage the docket of complaints more effectively, stepped up our emphasis on a proactive compliance program, and taken steps to make sure our employees have the training and tools they need.

Since 2014, EPA has staffed OCR with new employees that have previous civil rights experience. EPA has also appointed Deputy Civil Rights Officials in each of our 10 Regional offices around the country to act as liaisons to communities and states, to leverage OCR resources with EPA program expertise, and to help OCR collect the evidence and documentation needed for case investigations.

OCR is committed to systematically changing the way it approaches complaints. The office will soon release an External Compliance Program Strategic Plan that sets forth concrete accountability measures to manage the docket of external complaints more promptly, effectively and efficiently. It will also soon have in place a Case Resolution Manual —a comprehensive guide for OCR staff on all phases of case investigation and resolution—including complaints and compliance reviews, as well as model letters, investigative plans, and other standard operating documents for staff as they address and resolve civil rights cases. The manual will bring OCR in line with the kinds of procedures already in place at many other federal civil rights agencies, and for transparency, the manual will be posted online. By developing these tools, we’ll help make sure cases are resolved promptly and consistently across the country.

We’re also releasing a Civil Rights Toolkit, which will help educate states, other recipients of EPA financial assistance, and communities on their rights and obligations under federal nondiscrimination laws. And since every case is different, we will use all resolution options available, including informal resolution and Alternative Dispute Resolution, to promptly and effectively address communities’ concerns and bring about change. In addition, OCR is reevaluating its nondiscrimination regulations to make sure they offer the flexibility and clarity needed to manage the complaint docket more strategically, and to build a stronger proactive compliance program.

OCR is strengthening its proactive compliance efforts through targeted compliance reviews, strategic policy development, and engagement with internal and external stakeholders—including recipients and communities. Proactive engagement and partnerships with recipients will let OCR address potential discrimination before it becomes a real challenge for communities.

OCR will also work more closely with communities to make sure they understand their nondiscrimination rights, how to work more effectively with recipients to secure those rights, and how to file discrimination complaints that can withstand fundamental jurisdictional requirements. In the past, many communities filed complaints to OCR against private companies that didn’t receive federal funds. Since nondiscrimination requirements did not apply, OCR had to reject those complaints. By working with communities from the beginning, we can help make sure their concerns are directed to where they can best be resolved, and to strengthen transparency and accountability. Starting in 2016, OCR will publish an annual report to keep the public apprised of the office’s progress.

Finally, OCR is comprehensively evaluating position descriptions, skill sets, and current occupational competencies to make sure they align with OCR’s mission-critical priorities. EPA employees are the key to meeting the agency’s mission, so we’re making sure OCR staff have the training, developmental opportunities, and support they need to meet these goals.

EPA’s vision for the next five years is that OCR will have made strides toward promptly, effectively and efficiently resolving complaints. OCR will use all the tools at its disposal to resolve complaints, conduct compliance reviews and affect real change. It will have a well-established and proactive process to make sure recipients comply with nondiscrimination laws. And OCR will have a fully implemented public outreach and technical assistance program to educate recipients on their civil rights obligations, and to engage communities and empower them with civil rights information.

EPA is committed to building a model civil rights program. I’m confident that through the dedicated, expert and proactive work of our staff and the efforts of recipients and communities, we will make that vision a reality. Learn more here.

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.

A Call to Public Service: Civil Rights and Environmental Justice

As a child growing up in the 1950s in upstate New York, my days were filled with school, baseball, and playing in the woods. In my early years, I was mostly unaware of the broader social issues of the time.

Coming of age in the ‘60s, all of that changed.

The 24-hour news cycle didn’t exist yet, and it took more effort to keep up with current events back then. But as a young teenager, I began to pay more attention—and in 1963 the world came crashing in. The March on Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech, and President Kennedy’s assassination suddenly made me aware of a greater struggle beyond the world I knew.

As I started high school, I tried to understand how these events fit together—but I couldn’t comprehend why, in the United States of America, it was a struggle to pass a law to assure equal rights. But justice finally prevailed and the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964.

Like the civil rights movement, the environmental movement was made up of ordinary people who faced injustice and focused public attention to confront it. Unbearable smog in Los Angeles and a burning river in Ohio were a wake-up call to Americans that pollution threatens our health, and that we have a responsibility to fight it.

Our nation’s major environmental laws were passed in the early 1970s, but they too were a struggle, with many critics claiming they would kill the economy.

Now, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, hindsight helps us appreciate where these years of struggle have led. As I got older, I came to understand that any problem worth tackling is difficult in the moment—but that we should do things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Civil rights and environmental protection were hard-won out of the same desire for a stronger, more equal America. Both have transformed our nation for the better. Today, the air in Los Angeles is breathable. Fish swim again in Ohio’s Cuyahoga River. And despite the naysayers, the U.S. has cut air pollution 70 percent since 1970, while GDP has tripled.

But there’s still more work to do.

We have less pollution than we did in decades past, but the benefits of our collective cleanup are still unequal. Poor and underserved communities are still unfairly impacted by pollution—leading to illness and missed days of school and work that disadvantaged families can’t afford. Whether it’s smog that causes asthma, toxic chemicals that foul our water, or carbon pollution that fuels climate change, our job is to right that wrong.

That’s where civil rights and environmental protection converge today, and it’s why EPA’s commitment to environmental justice is so important. This summer, our country took a huge step forward. Although we limit pollutants like mercury, sulfur, and arsenic, currently, there are no limits on carbon pollution from power plants, our nation’s largest source. Under President Obama’s direction, the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan will cut carbon pollution from power plants 30 percent by 2030. At the same time, we’ll cut other dangerous pollutants like particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide.

During this 50th anniversary year of the Civil Rights Act, we must recommit to justice in all its forms, and for us at EPA, this means making sure everyone has equal access to the benefits of our work, regardless of who they are or where they come from. I know our team is up to the task.

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.

Celebrating 50 Years of Civil Rights and Environmental Justice

The Environmental Protection Agency is driven by a fundamental belief that everyone has a right to clean air to breathe, safe water to drink, and healthy land to call our home. At the heart of that conviction is our unwavering pursuit of equality and environmental justice for all.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, EPA is celebrating with the theme Honoring Our Past, Embracing Our Present, and Building Our Future. I’m pleased to join with others to mark this enduring legacy as we work toward a more just future. Continue reading

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.