Economic Opportunity and Social Issues Trump Environment as Top Concern for Poor and Minorities, by John Carlisle

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Environmental laws are unfair to minorities and the poor because, although they are least able to pay, they must bear the greatest costs for adhering to those laws through lost jobs and higher prices.

The time is long overdue for government to start considering the negative economic impact of proposed environmental laws on impoverished minorities before implementation.

So concludes the results of a recent survey of 69 environmental justice groups conducted by the National Center for Public Policy Research. These groups represent a diverse collection of African-American, Hispanic and Native American activist organizations. These groups have also identified themselves, to varying degrees, as concerned about environmental justice for minorities and the poor.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton attempted to establish an environmental justice policy by issuing an executive order. That order required federal agencies to promote environmental justice for minorities and the poor by ensuring that agency policies do not inflict additional environmental burdens on these communities. The order stems from the belief that the poor and minorities suffer more environmental ills than other Americans.

But, as the National Center survey discovered, this concept of environmental justice is woefully inadequate. While not denying the need to ensure that minorities are not inflicted with excessive environmental problems, the groups surveyed by the National Center understand true environmental justice to include far more than just the natural environment but the social and economic environment as well. The results of the survey suggest that true environmental justice, according to these groups, also means taking into account the urgent need for economic improvement, better-paying jobs, educational opportunity and access to better health care.

When asked, for instance, to rank their top public policy concern out of a list of six issues – education, health care, racism, economic advancement, environmental progress and crime – only six percent of environmental justice groups ranked the environment as their top priority. An overwhelming 91% of respondents ranked education, health care, fighting racism and economic advancement as more important than environmental issues.

Likewise, 72% of environmental justice groups disagreed with the idea that low-income communities should be deprived of jobs, higher incomes and other economic opportunities if that is necessary to enforce environmental laws and regulations. This concern for balancing economic issues with environmental concerns was reflected throughout the survey. For example, 57% of surveyed groups said that environmental goals must be balanced by concern for economic opportunities for the poor. This includes 20% who believe that minorities must be protected against costly environmental regulations that deprive them of much-needed jobs.

Indeed, the need for introducing a sense of balance to environmental policy was of pre-eminent concern. When asked if environmental laws are applied unevenly such that minorities pay the greatest costs, in terms of lost jobs and higher prices, of environmental regulations, 63% agreed. In addition, 47% of environmental justice groups believe that environmental regulatory agencies are unsympathetic to the needs and concerns of the poor and minorities. Not surprisingly, then, 74% of environmental justice groups believe that government should be required to determine that proposed environmental laws would not have a disproportionate impact on minority and low-income communities before being adopted.

Despite this clear call for economic fairness, the government’s current environmental justice policy ignores these concerns. Since President Clinton’s 1994 executive order, several poor communities with substantial minority residents have been deprived of urgently needed job-creating businesses by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the name of the Administration’s skewed concept of environmental justice. In one of the more outrageous cases, Select Steel Inc. proposed to build a $175 million steel mill that would create 200 jobs in the economically-distressed community of Genesee County, Michigan. But at the prodding of a handful of local activists crying environmental racism, the EPA claimed that pollution from Select Steel would unfairly affect minorities. In 1998, the company was forced to locate to a more economically affluent area. Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) blasted the EPA’s harassment of Select Steel, wondering “how in heaven’s name would the environment of this nation be improved” by thwarting job-creation in depressed communities.

Environmental improvement certainly is important but, to many environmental justice groups fighting on behalf of their impoverished communities, it is hardly the only policy priority. Jobs, quality education and health care are often equally or more important concerns to struggling minorities. Indeed, by not balancing the need for economic improvement and other goals, the government’s current environmental justice policy becomes environmental injustice.

(John K. Carlisle is the director of The National Center for Public Policy Research’s Environmental Policy Task Force. He can be reached at [email protected].)

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