By Beyond Pesticides Daily News Blog

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is seeking public comment on an interim guidance document that requires agency staff to incorporate environmental justice into the agency's rulemaking process. The rulemaking guidance is a step toward meeting EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson's priority to work for environmental justice and protect the health and safety of communities that have been disproportionally impacted by pollution.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has been touring the country talking about environmental justice, which involves paying special attention to the vulnerabilities of low income or underserved communities on the grounds that the areas have been exposed to a combination of chemical, biological, social and other burdens that are disproportionately higher than the burdens faced by the general population. Under interim guidance announced Monday, EPA staff will reach out to people in the affected communities early in the process, building awareness and seeking feedback along the way.

"Historically, the low-income and minority communities that carry the greatest environmental burdens haven't had a voice in our policy development or rulemaking. We want to expand the conversation to the places where EPA's work can make a real difference for health and the economy," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. "This plan is part of my ongoing commitment to give all communities a seat at the decision-making table. Making environmental justice a consideration in our rulemaking changes both the perception and practice of how we work with overburdened communities, and opens this conversation up to new voices."

The document, Interim Guidance on Considering Environmental Justice During the Development of an Action, seeks to advance environmental justice for low-income, people of color and indigenous communities, and tribal governments that have been historically underrepresented in the regulatory decision-making process. The guide also outlines the multiple steps that every EPA program office can take to incorporate the needs of overburdened neighborhoods into the agency's decision making, scientific analysis, and rule development. According to EPA, agency staff is to become familiar with environmental justice concepts and the many ways they should inform agency decision making. The guide directs EPA rule writers and decisions makers to respond to three basic questions throughout the process:

1. How did your public participation process provide transparency and meaningful participation for minority, low-income, and indigenous populations, and tribes?

2. How did you identify and address existing and new disproportionate environmental and public health impacts on minority, low-income, and indigenous populations?

3. How did actions taken under #1 and #2 impact the outcome or final decision?

Environmental justice is based on the idea that some people, specifically, people of color and low income people, suffer significantly higher rates of environmentally induced problems than the average. In the early 1980s, a landmark U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found that three out of four landfills in the Southeast were located in communities of color. A 1992 National Law Journal study found that Superfund offenders paid 54 percent lower fines in communities of color than in white communities. In 2005, under the Bush administration, EPA drafted a strategic plan on Environmental Justice that defined environmental justice as "the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies." However, critics said eliminating considerations of race and income made the program meaningless. More than 70 legislators, including Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), sent a letter to EPA saying that the draft plan "fails to address the real environmental-justice problems facing our nation's most polluted communities" and lambasting the dismissal of race as "a significant departure from existing environmental-justice policies."

A 2006 report released by the Inspector General (IG), EPA Needs to Conduct Environmental Reviews of Its Programs, Policies and Activities, found that senior management at EPA has not directed program and regional offices to conduct environmental justice reviews as required by the Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898. The report said, "Until these program and regional offices perform environmental justice reviews, the Agency cannot determine whether its programs cause disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects on minority and low-income populations."

Last year, farmworker unions, support groups, and worker advocacy organizations asked Administrator Jackson to stop the pesticide poisoning of farmworker communities and uphold the Obama administration's commitment to environmental justice, citing a long EPA history of "inhumane neglect of toxic pesticide effects on farmworker community health." Farmworkers and their families suffer injuries and illnesses at high rates. They suffer from exposure to pesticides, nicotine poisoning during the tobacco harvest, extreme temperatures and are constantly stooping, bending, and lifting, while earning an average of $12,500 to $15,000 per year.

Beyond Pesticides has urged EPA and policy makers to recognize that risk assessment calculations are inherently antithetical to environmental justice principles because it calculates "acceptable" risks across all population groups without identifying the disproportionate effect that exposure has on people of color and low income communities. In an article entitled "Race, Poverty and Pesticides," Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, wrote:

There is an inherent assumption that if a pesticide meets a highly questionable "acceptable" risk threshold, it has value or benefit. This calculation ignores the disproportionate risk, for example, to African American inner city children whose asthmatic conditions are caused or triggered by the very pesticide products that meet the health-based standard. The disproportionate impact of this and other public health and environmental policies, contributing to disproportionately high morbidity and mortality due to asthma, is borne out by the statistics on asthma: 12.5 percent of children nationwide; 17 percent of children in New York City; and, 30 percent of children in Harlem, New York City. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, National Institutes of Health, African Americans are 4 to 6 times more likely than whites to die from asthma. Therefore, any time our policies allow regulators to permit uses of pesticides with known asthma effects, which is done daily, a disproportionate impact is felt in the African American community. Among other policies, this toxics policy contributes to a cycle of poverty, as asthma is the leading cause of school absenteeism due to chronic illness.

TAKE ACTION: EPA is seeking public feedback on how to best implement and improve the guide for agency staff to further advance efforts toward environmental justice. Read the document and leave comments here.