If Black history is indeed American history, the importance of the Environmental Protection Agency as it relates to Black people should resonate to all people.
In 1992, civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis introduced the Environmental Justice Act to remove racial disparities in environmental decisions. And in 2011, President Obama renewed the White House’s commitment to fighting environmental racism with his Memorandum of Understanding of President Clinton’s executive order on environmental justice – an order that mandated federal agencies direct attention towards and to investigate discriminatory effects of federal actions that impact people of color and low-income communities. Yet this Black History Month, Congressional members are actively seeking to eliminate the EPA. While this isn’t the first time that Congress or other high officials have sought to eliminate the EPA, given the number of recent attacks on it, it is important for the country to take note. The EPA plays a critical role in furthering federal environmental justice protections, and it is important that this country fights to keep this agency.
Black people have continuously paved the way to ensure that Black voices are part of the environmental narrative. Leaders like John Lewis, Vernice Miller-Travis, Robert Bullard, and even Martin Luther King Jr. achieved widespread support to ensure the environmental justice movement is ingrained in Black history and Black culture. Much of this work has been to improve the interagency working of environmental justice across the federal government. But problematic to this potential and disastrous change, is that the EPA leads the interagency working group for environmental justice protections. In Flint, Michigan, the EPA participated in conducting research and advising the state on ways to handle the crisis. When Lisa Jackson was Administrator of the EPA, her team issued the first finding of discrimination under a Title VI complaint based on race. The EPA enforces Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which is a law that seeks to prevent federally funded programs and agencies from discriminating against people of color and other constitutionally protected groups of people.
Black and brown people are disproportionately impacted by environmental harms in this country. However, Republicans have introduced a bill that would eliminate the agency that serves as the federal oversight agency for environmental decisions across the country. States have used EPA’s regulations and guidance for issues such as Clean Power and air quality to improve their state implementation of environmental planning. Because states rely on the EPA for guidance on their environmental justice planning, eliminating the EPA would be detrimental to any potential national advancement of environmental justice. Currently, if individuals believe that a federally funded recipient – including state agencies – is discriminating against them, the EPA and other federal agencies have to follow up on that claim instead of an individual having the right to bring a private lawsuit. But with over 300 complaints that the EPA left unanswered, Congress should increase capacity to investigate these claims not remove it.
While the EPA has its flaws, it is important to have a federal oversight agency for environmental protections. Many states are not equipped to conduct scientific review of environmental justice issues without the support of a federal agency. States will have fewer resources to hold themselves accountable on environmental justice cases if Congress passes this bill.
So this Black History Month, let’s vow to protect environmental justice and the EPA, critical parts of Black history, past and present. And let’s work to broaden protections for Black people across the country.