Civil Rights Commission Should Address the Economic Impact of Environmental Justice Policies

Over the past few years, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hasn’t been known for promoting racial harmony. Chairman Mary Frances Berry is a stalwart liberal who rules the Commission with an iron fist. Critics accuse her of using the government agency to promote her own political agenda. Commission reports critical of both the 2000 presidential election results and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s policing policy just as he began his run for the Senate, plus Berry’s current refusal to seat a Bush-appointed commissioner, have tarnished the Commission’s reputation.

On January 11, Berry and her fellow commissioners have an opportunity to fix this negative perception. When the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights meets in Washington to discuss the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “environmental justice” policy, it will have the ability to point out how environmental justice policies must be reformed if poor and minority citizens are to be fully protected from undue economic and environmental hardships. Not only would this promote civil rights, but it would also address a problem that conservatives and minority leaders have been complaining about for years.

In 1994, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, which instructs federal agencies to identify and address “disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies and activities on minority populations and low-income Americans.”1 The implication has been that businesses impose themselves on relatively powerless communities, and that the government must step in to protect those communities. Environmental justice policy in practice – particularly at the EPA – has proven to be, in the words of former Detroit mayor Dennis Archer, “so vague and so broad that it nullifies everything that we have done to attract companies” to minority communities.2

The order does not bar the government from also assessing the economic impacts of government policies and regulations on minorities and the poor, but the government so far has failed to do so. Expanding the scope of the government’s environmental justice investigations is something that should naturally be championed by the Commission.

Current environmental justice policy can be detrimental to the communities it is meant to protect. In Romeville, Louisiana, the EPA essentially denied residents – 40% of whom live below poverty level – hundreds of temporary construction jobs and 165 permanent jobs simply because the residents are black. Saying the Shintech Corporation’s proposed chemical plant was determined to cause a “disparate impact” on the minority community, the EPA denied Shintech a permit to build over the objections of the local NAACP and other community groups. Shintech built the plant, but in a white community.3 Select Steel, Inc. decided against locating a steel mill that would create 200 jobs in economically distressed Genesee County, Michigan after a small group of local activists filed a challenge with the EPA on environmental justice grounds. Questioning the activists’ motivations, Congressman James Barcia (D-MI) said, “I can’t understand it. They just don’t want economic development in Michigan.”4

Even self-described environmental justice advocates decry the failure of the government’s policy. A survey of 69 environmental justice groups conducted by The National Center for Public Policy Research in 2000 found that 72% did not believe low-income communities should be deprived of jobs and other economic opportunities by environmental laws and regulations. In addition, 74% believed the government should be required to determine whether or not proposed environmental laws would unfairly hurt minorities. And 47% thought that regulatory agencies are unsympathetic to the concerns of the poor and minorities.5

Clearly, commissioners have a real problem before them. The question is whether Berry and her supporters will address this serious concern or simply rubber-stamp current government policies and single out businesses as the sole perpetrator of environmental and economic injustice.

Walter Williams, chairman of the George Mason University economics department, notes, “As you look around the world, it is poverty, as opposed to dirty air, that has implications for health.”6 It’s time for a clear and reasoned examination of government policies that deny prosperity. That’s the challenge the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights must accept.


David W. Almasi is the executive director of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a non-partisan Washington, D.C. think tank. 


1 “Federal Actions To Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations,” Federal Register, Vol. 59, No. 32, Wednesday, February 16, 1994, downloaded from orders/pdf/eo12898.pdf on December 21, 2001.
2 John Carlisle, “Needed: Environmental Justice for Minorities,” National Policy Analysis #288, The National Center for Public Policy Research, Washington, D.C., May, 2000.
3 “EPA Robs Poor African-American Community of Well-Paying Jobs,” National Directory of Environmental and Regulatory Victims, The National Center for Public Policy Research, Washington, D.C., 2000.
4 Michael Centrone, “The Time is Now for a New Environmental Justice Policy,” National Policy Analysis #296, The National Center for Public Policy Research, Washington, D.C., June, 2000.
5 John Carlisle, “Economic Opportunity and Social Issues Trump Environment as Top Concern for Poor and Minorities,” National Policy Analysis #310, The National Center for Public Policy Research, Washington, D.C., September 2000.
6 “Government’s Power Over the Environment Threatens Our Liberty,” interview with Tom Randall, Environment and Climate News, February 2000, p. 20.

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