Hamilton Journal News

President’s team promising justice on the environmen­t

- By Travis Loller

When President Joe Biden made environmen­tal protection a key element of his campaign, he promised to overhaul the federal office that investigat­es complaints from people in minority communitie­s who believe they have been unfairly harmed by industrial pollution or waste disposal.

Although the Environmen­tal Protection Agency acknowledg­es that disadvanta­ged communitie­s in America are disproport­ionately affected by pollution, hundreds of complaints sent to its civil rights office since the mid-1990s have only once resulted in a formal finding of discrimina­tion.

The situation has provoked criticism from the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, the EPA’s own Office of Inspector General and citizens who have filed complaints that sometimes languished for years .

Under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, states, cities and other entities that receive federal funds are prohibited from discrimina­ting because of race, color or national origin. That means citizens bearing the brunt of industrial pollution can bring a complaint if federal money is tied to the project.

In Uniontown, Alabama — a mainly Black town of 2,200 — residents complained to the EPA in 2013 about the Alabama Department of Environmen­tal Management’s oversight of a huge landfill containing 4 million tons of coal ash that residents blame for respirator­y, kidney and other ailments.

Five years later, the EPA dismissed the complaint, saying residents hadn’t proven the landfill caused their health issues.

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission called the dismissal of the Uniontown complaint “another distressin­g step in the wrong direction” by the EPA office.

The outcome was typical. In three decades of fielding complaints, EPA’s civil rights office has almost never found pollution was adversely affecting human health. And without such a finding, the agency won’t even consider whether illegal discrimina­tion occurred.

Marianne Engleman-Lado, who was recently appointed by the Biden administra­tion to the EPA’s office of general counsel, had helped Uniontown residents with their case. She maintains the way the EPA evaluates such complaints makes it nearly impossible to prevail because proving with scientific certainty that pollution is causing disease is a nearly insurmount­able obstacle.

Ben Eaton, a Perry County Commission­er involved in the Uniontown complaint, said attorneys warned that discrimina­tion claims usually go nowhere, but residents felt their evidence — including photos and videos — was compelling. “What’s the use of having these agencies,” he said, “if they’re not going to do the job?”

Residents of a predominan­tly Black and Latino community in Oakland, California, were similarly disappoint­ed with results of their civil rights complaint over air pollution at the Port of Oakland.

Margaret Gordon, a co-founder of the West Oakland Environmen­tal Indicators Project, said her group did not have a seat at the table when EPA hammered out an informal resolution with the port.

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