25 Years of Environmental Justice at the EPA

by Danny Gogal

For a quarter of a century, the EPA has worked to address the environmental and public health concerns of minority, low-income and indigenous communities.  I have been blessed to be a part of this effort since its first steps. The Agency’s decision to establish the Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ), initially called the Office of Environmental

EPA Administrator Bill Reilly speaking to students on MLK Jr Day about EJ

EPA Administrator Bill Reilly speaking to students on MLK Jr Day about EJ

Equity, stemmed from the recommendations of the EPA Environmental Equity Work Group, which was formed by Administrator Bill Reilly in 1990 to “review the evidence that racial minority and low-income communities bear a disproportionate risk burden.”

As stated in the 1992 recommendations to Administrator Reilly, “any effort to address environmental equity [justice] issues effectively must include all segments of society: the affected communities, the public at large, industry, people in policy-making positions, and all levels and branches of government.”  This understanding continues to this day. As described in the Agency’s recently released draft FY 2018-2022 EPA Strategic Plan, the Agency is committed to “collaborate more efficiently and effectively with other federal agencies, states, sovereign tribal nations, local governments, communities, and other partners and stakeholders to address existing pollution and prevent future problems.”

Throughout these past twenty-five years, I have participated in almost every aspect of the Agency’s environmental justice program.  In the earliest days, we sought to create

OEJ staff in the early 1990s

OEJ staff in the early 1990s

an EPA definition of environmental justice; to establish the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (1993), a federal advisory committee comprised of various stakeholders to give us independent advice and recommendations for providing for environmental justice; to develop financial assistance programs for vulnerable communities, such as EJ Small Grants (1993); and to initiate federal interagency coordination and collaboration on environmental justice through the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice, as called for under Executive Order 12898 (1994).

In subsequent years, we have developed environmental justice strategies and priorities that consistently built upon our EJ progress and achievements.  Most recently, we developed EJSCREEN, the Agency’s nationally consistent screening and mapping tool for determining areas of potential environmental justice concern.  We clarified the Agency’s principles for addressing environmental justice of tribes, indigenous peoples and others living Indian country through the EPA Policy on Environmental Justice for Working with Federally Recognized Tribes and Indigenous Peoples.  We also finalized two separate documents focused on the Action Development Process and Technical Guidance of considering environmental justice during the development of regulations.

In collaboration with our co-regulators (states and tribes), vulnerable communities, and other interested stakeholders, the Agency has made considerable progress developing the infrastructure, creating the tools and identifying the opportunities for the Agency to provide environmental and public health protection for all Americans.  At the dawning of

Charles Lee, then OEJ Director, at EJ Roundtable with the tribes in Alaska

Charles Lee, then OEJ Director, at EJ Roundtable with the tribes in Alaska

the next 25 years of the EPA’s Environmental Justice Program, it is my hope that future generations will be able to look back at this point in time and be able to note the substantive and meaningful steps EPA took to improve the environment and public health of our country’s most vulnerable communities.  More importantly, I hope that they will also note how the efforts of so many inside and outside of EPA during these past 25 years resulted in meaningful progress and improvements in the lives, health, environments and economies of overburdened communities throughout the United States.

About the Author: Danny Gogal is the Tribal and Indigenous Peoples Program Manager for the Office of Environmental Justice, and leads the Agency’s work on international human rights.

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