The Time is Now for a New Environmental Justice Policy, by Michael Centrone

When Select Steel Inc. proposed construction of a $175 million steel mill that would create 200 jobs in the economically-distressed community of Genesee County, Michigan, the majority of local residents welcomed the proposal. But thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) so-called environmental justice policy, which purports to protect minorities from being disproportionately affected by pollution, the company was forced to locate to a more affluent area last year – depriving economically-disadvantaged minorities of the opportunity to get high-paying manufacturing jobs.

When Select Steel announced its plan to establish a plant in Genesee County in 1998, an area whose residents have recently seen a drop in per capita income, a majority of residents wanted its $16-per-hour jobs very much. However, members of the local St. Francis Prayer Center, a religious organization, filed a complaint with the EPA in June, 1998 claiming that pollution from Select Steel would unfairly affect minorities since it would be in a neighborhood with a high minority population. But after discovering that the area surrounding the proposed plant actually consisted of an 84% white population, the EPA dropped the investigation. Undaunted, the activists appealed the EPA’s decision. Frustrated by the delays, the company relocated the plant in Ingham County where unemployment is just 3.2% as compared to 5.6% in Genesee County.

Outraged Michigan politicians blasted the activists and the EPA’s policy. Said Congressman James Barcia (D-MI), “I can’t understand it. They just don’t want economic development in Michigan.” Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) wondered “how in heaven’s name would the environment of this nation be improved?” by stopping the creation of jobs in depressed communities.

The environmental justice issue has been of growing concern to African-American leaders and businesses ever since President Bill Clinton signed an executive order on environmental justice in 1994 centering on the belief that minority and low-income communities suffer an unfair share of environmental problems. The executive order allows the EPA to deny environmental permits whenever it determines that pollutants will disproportionately affect communities with particular racial or ethnic characteristics.

But this policy is widely opposed by an array of minority advocacy groups, state and local officials and trade associations including the National Black Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Black County Officials, National Council of Mayors, National Governor’s Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. These groups argue that the EPA’s policy causes unnecessary, time-consuming and costly assessments that inhibit job creation. Harry Alford, president of the Black Chamber of Commerce, goes even farther to say, “The EPA is pimping the black community to further their own agenda of a pristine earth at the expense of our jobs.” Ironically, the EPA’s policy runs counter to the Clinton Administration’s support for revitalizing economically-depressed urban areas through the federal “brownfields” program.

Brownfields are abandoned commercial and industrial properties located in distressed urban communities. According to a U.S. Conference of Mayors report, redevelopment of 81,568 acres of brownfield sites could generate 550,000 jobs and up to $2.4 billion in new tax revenue for U.S. cities. Such redevelopment would help reduce the eight percent African-American unemployment rate and boost the median weekly income of African-Americans from its 1999 level of $445 as compared to $573 for non-Hispanic whites.

Due to the EPA’s flawed environmental justice policy, companies like Select Steel are taking their business to other areas – often more affluent – where they can operate without interference by opposition groups claiming discrimination. Detroit’s African-American Mayor Dennis Archer strongly condemns the EPA’s environmental justice policy because it is “so vague and so broad that it nullifies everything that we have done to attract companies to our brownfield sites.”

The Clinton Administration’s environmental justice policy is an injustice because it does not balance environmental concerns with the economic needs of minorities. Contrary to what environmentalists may believe, African-Americans do not need special protection from economic improvement.


(Michael Centrone is a research associate for The National Center for Public Policy Research’s Environmental Policy Task Force. He can be reached at [email protected].)

Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.

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