A lot of work’ remains on environmental justice — ex-official

Source: Robin Bravender, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Former U.S. EPA official Lisa Garcia thinks the Obama administration has made headway on environmental justice — but there’s a lot left to be done.

Garcia — who became EPA’s first environmental justice adviser when former agency chief Lisa Jackson created the post in 2009 — left the agency to start a new job this month with the environmental law firm Earthjustice. She spearheaded efforts to integrate environmental justice into EPA’s programs and stepped down shortly after the 20th anniversary of a Clinton-era order directing agencies to make environmental justice part of their missions.”We had all these things we could celebrate,” Garcia said yesterday in an interview. “But one of the things that EPA understood and communities and even states understood is that there still is a lot of work to be done.”

Garcia said that when she arrived at EPA early in the Obama administration, “environmental justice was not a priority. So it was great to be invited to come in and work for the administration and certainly team up with Administrator Lisa Jackson to figure out how you can make environmental justice a priority.”

At the time, community members thought EPA should expand its environmental work, and they wanted a broader push from the administration on the issue — not just from EPA, Garcia said. EPA’s staff wanted more information to determine which communities to work in and what legal opportunities were available to them.

So Garcia helped spearhead “Plan EJ 2014,” EPA’s road map for integrating environmental justice concerns across agency programs. EPA has since issued new guidance about legal tools. It has developed screens to help identify low-income and minority communities facing environmental burdens and laid out plans to boost public participation during the environmental permitting process.

Now, she’s hoping EPA can get out and start doing more localized work in those communities facing disproportionate environmental impacts. She cited Port Arthur, Texas, as an example.

“Now maybe we can go to Port Arthur and figure out, ‘Hey, what do we need to do in Port Arthur to help improve the quality of life here?'” Garcia said.

She’s planning to do community-based work in her new gig at Earthjustice, where she’s the group’s first vice president of litigation for health.

“If you look at low-income communities or communities of color, a lot of times they’re faced with not only many facilities but the resulting health impacts of that,” she said. “I think this role will help navigate and figure out if Earthjustice has a role in working with some of those communities and supporting the communities in their effort to reduce pollution from some of the local sources.”

And she said she’s confident that others will carry the torch at EPA. “What you’ll hear from the administrator now, Gina McCarthy, her huge priority is working in communities. So I think that it’s a great statement that everyone’s going to continue with the priority.”

Garcia said she expects McCarthy to find someone to fill her post as environmental justice adviser. EPA has a separate environmental justice office within its enforcement division.

Despite the Obama administration’s pledges to elevate environmental justice concerns — and the recent celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Clinton order — some activists haven’t been satisfied with the pace of change.

“We’ve been here for 20 years,” Vernice Miller-Travis, a member of the board of directors of the National Environmental Justice Conference Inc., said last month at a conference in Washington, D.C. “We are still having a discussion about, well, we’re not sure we have the tools. The tools are called political will, and we have muscled that will before to do what needs to be done,” she said (Greenwire, March 27).

Richard Moore, co-chairman of the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, called on federal officials to act faster. “How many of us have to die before you implement guidance, policies, regulations standards and all the other things that protect people equally in this country — not just a few, but all of us that live in communities and work in these facilities?”