Environmental Justice, Redux?

Here’s further proof that in the Nation’s Capital, bad ideas never go away, they just wait quietly in the wings until new management arrives:

In its National Enforcement Priorities list for Fiscal Years 2011-2013, the EPA includes, for the first time as a stand-alone priority, “environmental justice” or, as the agency’s coded bureaucratese puts it, a focus on pollution in communities which have a “disproportionate exposure to environmental risks and those with greater concentrations of sensitive populations, including urban minority and low-income communities.” 

Recent EPA actions confirm the agency’s increased focus on environmental justice and its efforts to reenergize the movement’s activists. And what better way to encourage activism than by handing out taxpayer dollars?  For instance,  in EPA’s recent  progress report the agency noted doling out “40 grants totaling $800,000 to state, local, tribal and community groups to help low-income and minority communities that are disproportionately exposed to high levels of pollution and risk.”  EPA will be handing out thousands of more taxpayer dollars to the winners of its Faces of the Grassroots Environmental Justice Video Contest.  Finally, the agency has also initiated an Environmental Justice Showcase Communities program pledging $1,000,000 for 10 “pet projects”  “to improve collaboration in the delivery of services to support communities with environmental justice issues.” 

The environmental justice movement had its heyday in the mid-90s, but stalled when courts began rejecting the radical “disparate impact” legal theory on which it’s based, and senior environmental officials lost interest, despite the persistence of activists and their allies at EPA. 

The agency also faced significant push-back from some in the very minority and lower-income communities environmental justice supposedly benefits.  Harry Alford, CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce has written that the movement “seeks to limit progress in minority communities via inertia through excess regulation, bureaucracy and adverse policy in regards to infrastructure and economic progress.”  When EPA used the theory in 1997 to block construction of an industrial facility which would have brought hundreds of jobs and millions in tax revenue to financially struggling Convent, Louisiana, one resident asked, “Why do these people want to take away our jobs?” 

So whose interests will EPA take most into account as they consider reviving this bad idea: the activists who benefit financially from an embrace of environmental justice, or the citizens whose path to higher incomes and better health is not more government regulation, but more jobs?

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