EPA Struggles to Deliver Environmental Justice

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By Eric Tegethoff
Washington News Service

SEATTLE – The Environmental Protection Agency rarely investigates complaints from minority communities that allege local environmental regulations are discriminatory.

According to the Center for Public Integrity, only one of seven cases in Washington state has been accepted for investigation since 1996.

Sarah Tory, who wrote a recent article for High Country News about the EPA’s failure to enforce the Civil Rights Act, says there’s a disconnect between the agency’s civil rights office and its regulatory wing.

“It seems to be the case that the EPA is chiefly concerned with making sure industries, power plants, et cetera, are complying with the laws,” says Tory. “And if they are, the EPA is reticent to then turn around and say, ‘Actually while you may be in compliance with our regulations, you’re violating the Civil Rights Act.'”

Since the EPA established its Office for Civil Rights in the early 1990s, it has received more than 300 complaints, yet never made a formal finding of environmental discrimination.

The Center for Public Integrity says it takes the agency 350 days on average to decide whether to investigate a case.

Tory says in one case, the pesticide methyl bromide was being used near a California high school.

In 1999, seven parents filed a complaint with the EPA against the California Department of Pesticide Regulation.

Twelve years later, the agency released preliminary findings of discrimination, for the first time ever and in response, set up one air-quality monitor near the school.

Tory says by then, another pesticide was in much wider use.

“During the time the EPA took to investigate the impacts of methyl bromide, the pesticide had been phased out, and it had been replaced by a new pesticide called methyl iodide,” she says. “Methyl iodide is also linked to numerous health problems, and the EPA knew this but didn’t account for it in their investigation.”

The EPA has released a draft action plan called EJ 2020 to ensure the agency can better respond to allegations of environmental discrimination in the future.

EJ 2020 is open to public comment through July 7.

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The Kitsap Scene

The Kitsap Scene is an online news magazine covering everything in Kitsap County.

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