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October 01, 2003

Integrating Environmental Justice at the Environmental Protection Agency

by J. P. Suarez

As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Office of Environmental Justice celebrates its tenth anniversary, we stress more than ever the importance of integrating environmental justice into every program and policy within our agency. We are dedicated to achieving the EPA's dual environmental justice goals: (1) no community, regardless of race or income, should be disproportionately placed at risk from environmental and human health threats; and (2) all communities should have a meaningful opportunity to participate in the environmental decisions that affect them.

The Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA) at the EPA attempts to deliver environmental justice with smart enforcement—proactively planning, budgeting, and managing programs to efficiently apply and deliver them where needed. Because numerous independent studies have concluded that minority, low-income, and tribal communities historically have been disproportionately exposed to environmental harms and risks, the EPA and the OECA devote special attention to these communities. Their environmental and public health issues are very real.

The EPA tries to work with neighborhoods, states, tribes, businesses, and others to target its resources and, in particular, to build trust between the agency and communities. In the Park Heights neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland, for example, the Park Reist Corridor Coalition, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), and the EPA combined to assist auto body and repair shops in complying with the law-and thus helped promote an environmentally sound local economy. With the community's direct involvement, we measured compliance rates, provided training to shop managers, and monitored conditions to better protect the local environment and residents from hazardous substances.

The EPA also works closely with tribal authorities and membership organizations. To maximize compliance and reduce threats to public health and the environment in Indian Country and Alaska Native villages, the EPA incorporated advice from tribes to create an enforcement and compliance assurance strategy to help ensure, among other things, that tribal members do not face disproportionate adverse health or environmental risks. In other instances, the OECA works directly with nonprofit organizations to address environmental justice. OECA recently entered into a partnership with the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives to provide training to identify environmental crimes. These officers refer environmental violations to the EPA, serve as new eyes on the street, and inform local communities about environmental hazards.

Interagency cooperation helps the EPA address major public health problems such as lead poisoning, one of the most serious environmental threats to children. Elevated blood-lead levels can retard young children's mental and physical development. Peeling paint chips and paint dust in older public and private housing act as a primary means of exposure. In May 2003 the EPA and the Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Justice reached settlements in two cases against Los Angeles-based property management companies for failure to warn tenants that their homes may contain lead-based paint hazards. The companies were required to test for and clean up lead-based paint in more than 4,500 apartments nationwide. In addition, the companies agreed to pay $100,000 in civil penalties, to contribute to two children's health projects in Los Angeles that will test children for lead poisoning, and to do community outreach.

In the Midwest, the EPA's Kansas City office has developed partnerships with county health departments to bring enforcement actions where inspectors find that children were poisoned by lead-based paint in the home and the landlord failed to follow the federal lead-based paint disclosure requirements. Our cooperative relationships with health departments have resulted in more than 120 successful civil enforcement actions and two criminal prosecutions during the last three years.

As part of smart enforcement, the OECA uses risk indicators, data and statistics on community health, compliance histories, and other factors to guide its actions, target inspections, and select cases for prosecution, directing resources to where they are most needed. The EPA continues to make much data available online. A recently launched Web site allows the public to access enforcement, compliance, permitting, and other environmental information for facilities within their communities. The Enforcement and Compliance History Online site provides information such as locations of sensitive populations (e.g., schools and hospitals) and demographics in easy-to-use map forms. Available at

Facilities that settle alleged violations with the EPA often seek to reestablish their reputations for environmental compliance with surrounding communities and regulators. If a violator agrees to undertake an environmentally beneficial project (a Supplemental Environmental Project, or an SEP), the EPA may consider this action when determining the violator's monetary penalty. These do not replace penalties or suspend requirements for injunctive relief but help the EPA encourage such remedial actions. In this past fiscal year, $56.5 million in SEPs contributed to the following projects: retrofitting high-polluting diesel buses with clean technology, abating lead-based paint in public housing, restoring environmental areas, creating green recreational spaces, and others.

Projects such as the ones described above are examples of restorative justice-efforts to help make communities whole and build trust. No community, regardless of race, color, national origin, culture, education, or income, should have to bear more than its fair share of an environmental burden. This is why environmental justice is woven throughout the fabric of the EPA's mission.

As published in Human Rights, Fall 2003, Vol. 30, No. 4, p.8-9.

J. P. Suarez

J. P. Suarez is the assistant administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance at the EPA. Previously, he served as a federal prosecutor and as an assistant U.S. attorney.