NAACP fights to localize environmental justice
by Erika McDonald
Harris County is home to a significant portion of the nations oil refining and petrochemical industries a large part of it located in the countys eastside. Also located in the eastside are some of the countys poorest neighborhoods.
Gene Collins, chair of the environmental justice committee of the NAACP Texas chapter, said that in Houston, low-income communities and communities of color bear a disproportionate amount of the burden from environmental problems like air and water pollution and inadequate waste management.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is pursuing legislation in several states, including Texas, to require all state agencies that play a role in evaluating development permits to consider issues of social impact in their environmental assessments.
An executive order signed in 1994 by then-president Bill Clinton required all federal agencies to consider the effects on minority and low-income communities when evaluating environmental impacts. Subsequently, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Committee was formed to make recommendations to the Environmental Protection Agencys administrator on federal environmental justice efforts.
Collins said that it makes sense to impose the same requirements at the state level because state agencies administer federal environmental programs and permitting processes for new development. Currently, no state agency is required to include an environmental justice component in their permitting process.
Warren Arthur, an administrator with the EPA office of environmental justice, agreed that the executive order has little impact at the state level. He said that legislation would be a necessary step in improving the quality of life for underrepresented people.
Environmental justice should probably be carried out at the state level and in order for the state to have an effective environmental justice program, it would need to be codified by state law, he said.
Until such legislation becomes a reality, the EPA is currently retooling its administrative approach to environmental justice at the regional level. According to Arthur, the Agency recommended in 2000, that regional EPA offices take on NEJACs mission and work in the spirit of the executive order.
Since that time, regions have been working to increase public participation, Arthur said. Most recently, the regions began hosting environmental justice listening sessions, workshops where individuals can engage in dialogue with state agency officials to address specific problems facing their communities. The region 6 listening session was hosted in Houston in November.
Arthur said EPA officials are also considering the formation of a state-level interagency working group, based on the NEJAC model. The group would be tasked with coordinating the efforts of all state agencies responsible for evaluating development permits. The committee would, like NEJAC, provide specific guidelines for the state agencies to examine issues of social impact before approving permit applications. He said the idea was purely conceptual at this point.
Arthur said he believed that the formation of regional working groups would be an important step toward state agencies considering social impacts and providing some relief to overburdened communities.
When communities are affected by industry, the problem is not just environmental, its economics, its health, its transportation-these problems arent solved just because you solved the environmental problem, he said.
Adria Dawidczik, a spokesperson for the TCEQ said the commission would be willing to cooperate with such a working group, but insisted that it already has a strong policy on addressing issues of environmental justice.
TCEQs environmental equity program operates through its office of public assistance, which Dawidczik said helps affected citizens participate in the Commissions permitting process by coordinating and publicizing public hearings on permit applications. There is also a toll-free number citizens can use to report complaints of environmental justice violations.
Dawidzciz also said that the Commission works under the same environmental justice guidelines as the federal government.
There are some federal laws administered by state agencies that could provide a basis for addressing environmental justice issues through permitting. For example, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act authorizes the EPA to consider social impacts in establishing priorities for hazardous waste management facilities. There are also authorities provided by the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act under which the EPA could address social concerns.
Under each law, the states program must be at least as stringent as the federal program. None of these laws provides a legal basis for rejecting a permit application based solely on alleged social impacts to the community.
Still, Collins said that without legislative mandate, TCEQs and other sate agencys commitment to environmental justice is purely discretionary.
Weve seen this before in Texas with the voluntary reporting (of toxic emissions by industry) and look how well that worked, he said. We cant count on the agencies to follow federal guidelines just because they should lawmakers need to make it a requirement.
One legislator, State Representative Garnet Coleman of Houston, said he would vote in favor of legislation that mandated the states responsibility to uphold environmental justice.
Historically, communities of color in Houstons eastside have paid the heaviest price for (negative) environmental impacts, he said. I think (passing such a bill) would give a voice to people who dont have the political power to fight industries with deep pockets.
Collins said he hopes to present the bill to the Texas legislature in 2003.