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EPA FORMS NEW ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE PANEL TO ADDRESS GULF CLEANUP
7 November 2005
Superfund Report
Vol. 19, No. 23
Copyright (c) 2005 Inside Washington Publishers. All Rights Reserved. Also available in print and online as part of www.InsideEPA.com.

EPA is forming a new environmental justice panel to address widespread concerns that the needs of poor and minority communities are not being considered in the response to and rebuilding of hurricane-damaged areas.

The new advisory committee -- which EPA is forming under the auspices of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) -- will examine the environmental justice issues raised in the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast and recommend new federal policies on the issue, agency advisers and other sources say.

As EPA forms the new panel, the Institute of Medicine (IOM), an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, is considering recommendations from environmental justice activists that will also address the issue in an upcoming guidebook it is developing for communities facing natural disasters.

Activists say hurricanes Katrina and Rita had a more severe impact on low-income and black communities because these communities are often located near contaminated sites and industrial plants.

As a result, the activists have said EPA and other authorities need to ensure these communities are not treated unfairly as cleanup and rebuilding take place in New Orleans and other hurricane-hit areas. Environmental justice activists are also urging policymakers not to waive environmental safeguards in responding to storm-related damage.

The activists also are arguing that the post-Katrina period provides a unique opportunity to address long-standing health and environmental disparities between minorities and whites, and are urging federal officials to give community residents a seat at the table in making decisions about rebuilding the Gulf Coast.

Speaking at an Oct. 17 event sponsored by the Environmental Law Institute (ELI), Oliver Houck, a Tulane University environmental law professor, called for a broad approach that would provide technical training to a large number of low-income and minority workers to help with the cleanup and rebuilding efforts. Vernice Miller-Travis, executive director of the environmental group Groundwork USA, noted that a similar program already exists, citing a brownfields minority worker training program jointly funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and EPA.

In one sign that EPA may be acknowledging activists' concerns, Charles Lee, EPA's deputy chief of the Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ), told the ELI forum, "As far as environmental justice, Katrina and Rita were really wake-up calls." He asked participants to provide policy ideas that would integrate "social justice with environmental equity."

Sources say Lee has approached several individuals in the affected areas to serve on the new advisory panel. EPA officials will announce the committee in the coming weeks and will develop its charge. The agency has set a preliminary deadline to have policy recommendations by next spring or summer, says a source who will serve on the panel.

But some environmental justice activists are raising concerns over OEJ's plan, citing the office's past rejection of NEJAC efforts. For example, EPA has faced criticism from agency staff, NEJAC members and environmental justice activists for ignoring recommendations on brownfields contamination and siting of federal facilities. In addition, EPA has faced a barrage of congressional and other criticism for dropping race and income levels as factors in deciding which communities need federal attention to ensure they are not disproportionately harmed by environmental policies.

One environmentalist, who served as a NEJAC member, questions the new effort, saying the agency is not including stakeholders who have been sharply critical of EPA's environmental justice policies. "OEJ has been less than forthcoming on this," the source says, referring to EPA's efforts to create the new panel. "Sharper critics have been left off the panel."

But supporters say the panel will have an equal number of individuals from industry, environmental groups, academia and other sectors.

Meanwhile, activists and public health officials are urging the experts convened by IOM to ensure they address environmental justice issues in an an upcoming guidebook it is developing for communities facing natural disasters.

Speaking at an Oct. 20 meeting convened by the IOM, attorney Monique Harden of the New Orleans-based Advocates for Environmental Human Rights called for expanded community input into the recovery and rebuilding process. Harden said protective environmental and public health conditions need to be established before the "diaspora of residents" could exercise their right to return to the city. This requires the "direct and respectful engagement of the community" to ensure the safe removal and disposal of hurricane-related waste, she said.

Harden -- who was added to the panel at the 11th hour because of concerns that not enough people from the affected areas were represented -- warned against waiving any environmental laws to streamline cleanup, saying a blanket waiver would expose vulnerable citizens to even greater risks in the long-term. "The disconnect and lack of a real relationship with impacted communities is part of the problem" in organizing a long-term response to the disaster, Harden said.

During the forum's question period, University of Texas cancer researcher Lovell Jones also said a unique opportunity has arisen to address environmental health and health disparities between minorities and whites and called on stakeholders to work together despite "all the distrust that's there." Jones expressed skepticism about some of his academic colleagues' priorities in entering hurricane-affected areas, saying they were more interested in publication than aid.

But scientist Paul Lioy of Rutgers University urged critics to consider that many academics respond to disasters to provide aid first and publish their findings later to provide assistance to responders in future disasters.

Sandral Hullett, the medical director of the Jefferson Health System, said public health researchers in the Gulf Coast would improve their work if they involved research subjects more directly and informed them of the results. Hullett outlined the many environmental health challenges faced by low-income communities in Alabama and Mississippi who live adjacent to toxic waste dumps.

The IOM organized the meeting to draw input from public health officials, emergency responders, environmental scientists and local activists involved in the response. IOM plans to release a report in early 2006, according to Paul Rogers, IOM Roundtable chair.

"We've all been thinking about terrorism, so we've been caught off guard by natural disasters like Katrina," Rogers said. "The goal is to tie together science, health and knowledge about disaster response to see if we could come together and give other communities who will face natural disasters a quick guidebook from those who've gone through it," Rogers said in an interview.
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