WASHINGTON – On Sept. 22, for the first time in more than a decade, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley reconvened the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (EJ IWG) in a meeting held at the White House. The meeting, attended by five cabinet members, demonstrates the Obama administration’s dedication to ensuring all Americans have strong federal protection from environmental and health hazards. Pollution like dirty air and contaminated water can have significant economic impacts on overburdened and low-income communities, driving away investment in new development and new jobs and exposing residents to potentially costly health threats. This historic gathering marks a recommitment to advancing the mandate of Executive Order 12898, “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations,” which states that each agency, with the law as its guide, should make environmental justice part of its mission.
The role of the EJ IWG is to guide, support and enhance federal environmental justice and community-based activities. By coordinating the expertise and resources of federal government agencies, the EJ IWG will work to identify projects where federal collaboration can support the development of healthy and sustainable communities. The EJ IWG will also seek opportunities to provide green jobs training in communities in need and promote a clean energy economy.
Attendees at the meeting included Attorney General Eric Holder, Department of Justice; Secretary Ken Salazar, Department of Interior; Secretary Shaun Donovan, Department of Housing and Urban Development; Secretary Ray LaHood, Department of Transportation; Administrator Martha Johnson, General Services Administration; Carol Browner, senior advisor to the president on energy and climate change; John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Melody Barnes, director of the White House Office of Domestic Policy; and representatives from the following federal agencies: Labor, Health and Human Services, Energy, Education, Homeland Security, Commerce, Army, Agriculture and Defense, among others.
“Environmental challenges in low-income and minority communities are barriers to opportunity. Dirty air, polluted water and contaminated lands degrade health and the environment while discouraging investments and economic growth,” said Jackson. “We believe that the burdens these communities face are best approached with collaborative efforts, built on the strengths brought by a team of different federal agencies. Revitalizing this workgroup creates an important chance to work together on environmental justice issues that have held back the prosperity of overburdened communities for far too long.”
“This country was built on the promise of equal opportunity for all of us, yet low-income families and minority communities shoulder a disproportionate amount of pollution and environmental degradation. We cannot and will not ignore these disparities,” said Sutley. ”As the chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, I am committed to ensuring that environmental justice isn’t just an afterthought – it’s an integral part of our mission.”
“In too many areas of our country, the burden of environmental degradation falls disproportionately on low-income and minority communities – and most often, on the children who live in those communities,” Holder said. “Our environmental laws and protections must extend to all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status which is why the Department of Justice is committed to addressing environmental justice concerns through aggressive enforcement of federal environmental laws in every community.”
“At the Department of Transportation, one of our top priorities has been promoting livable communities in collaboration with HUD and EPA,” said LaHood. “Through coordinated investments that improve access to affordable and sustainable housing and transportation opportunities, together we can improve the quality of life for communities across America.”
“As stewards of our natural resources and history, the Department of Interior has a special obligation to protect and promote our nation’s resources for all communities and all persons,” said Salazar. “Every American deserves a healthy environment in which they can live, learn and play.”
“HUD joins with our colleagues in the Obama administration to make an unprecedented commitment to combating environmental justice discrimination that all too often affect disadvantaged communities,” said Donovan. “At HUD we are committed to providing equal access to housing, mitigating risks to communities in disaster-prone areas, ensuring homes are free of health hazards, and working to create sustainable and inclusive communities across America so that a family’s success is not determined by the zip code they live in.”
During the meeting, some immediate next steps for the EJ IWG group were identified; these include:
Jackson highlighted examples of EPA’s environmental justice efforts:
The principles of environmental justice uphold the idea that all communities overburdened by pollution – particularly minority, low-income and indigenous communities – deserve the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, equal access to the decision-making process and a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work. EPA serves as the lead for environmental justice issues in the federal government.