A Different Standard for the Powerful Means no Environmental Justice from Washington, by Syd Gernstein

Laws are supposed to make our society orderly and protect the public interest. But red tape can overwhelm and actually cause more harm than good. The process can also be corrupted.

Take, for instance, “environmental justice.” This policy empowers the government to stand up for the rights of the poor and minorities who may not have the political clout to stop a polluter from coming into their neighborhoods.

A success story occurred when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) second-guessed the Missouri Department of Natural Resources approval of a proposed landfill. The EPA feared porous rock and geological faults in the region could cause pollutants to seep into the water supply of a neighboring minority community.1 But the policy backfired in Louisiana when the same EPA denied the Shintech Corporation a permit to build a factory in a minority community. With 40 percent of the population living below poverty level, residents and the local NAACP desperately wanted the wages and benefits the factory offered. Regretably, the government decided that the factory was not in its best interests, so Shintech relocated to a predominantly white community.2

It’s heartbreaking to see regulations destroy someone’s ability to earn a living. It’s infuriating when government regulators ignore the rules they zealously impose on the weak or poor when those same rules adversely affect government projects or the rich and powerful.

Two perfect examples of this do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do behavior are found in our nation’s capitol, the home of those who write and enforce federal laws.

The Woodrow Wilson Bridge connecting Maryland and Virginia across the Potomac River needs to be replaced. It’s one of the capital region’s highest transportation priorities because the existing bridge cannot meet current traffic demands. Construction of a new bridge, however, poses a threat to the habitats of the endangered bald eagle, shortnose sturgeon and dwarf wedge mussel.3

Regulators are looking the other way as bridge construction devastates habitats that should, by law, be protected. Commenting on the lax enforcement, Congressman George Radanovich (R-CA) noted, “Even though fish have a tough time swimming upriver to spawn when the bridges are being exploded and river bottoms dredged, Washington regulators plan to avoid harming the fish by eliminating their habitat, which would keep them out of the area – a big no-no under the [Endangered Species Act].”4

The National Wilderness Institute (NWI) filed a lawsuit against the government’s actions regarding the Wilson Bridge reconstruction. NWI Director Rob Gordon said, “NWI agrees that the bridge needs replacing… It is not our goal to inconvenience friends and neighbors… [I]f inconvenience to the citizens of the Washington, DC area does occur, it is because the federal government failed to follow the law.”5

Federal policies place the concerns of people over the needs of the habitat in the nation’s capital, but the federal government’s priorities are reversed elsewhere. In the Klamath valley region of Oregon and California, the federal government cut off water to farmers because of concerns over endangered coho salmon and sucker fish habitats. The decision cost 2,000 jobs. The regional economy lost $134 million, and farmers lost $71 million in revenue.6 Would the federal government have been as willing to cut off water to Washington, DC?

In Washington, upriver from the Wilson Bridge, near DC’s trendy Georgetown neighborhood, is the Washington Aqueduct. For years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has used the aqueduct to pump toxic sludge into the Potomac. Aluminum sulfate in the sludge has negative effects on the endangered shortnose sturgeon and the grasses it depends on to spawn. An alternative is to remove the sludge by truck, but that would require the trucks to drive past the homes of rich and powerful Georgetowners. Instead of inconveniencing residents, the Corps continues to flush the sludge into the river – often under cover of night or during storms.7

According to NWI’s Gordon, “Millions of pounds of toxic sludge destroying habitat is an enormous problem that demands immediate attention.”8

Would regulators allow private businesses or landowners to cut corners as the government has in Washington, DC? Clearly not.

All this points to the notion that our environmental laws have two modes of enforcement – one for the government and those it favors and one for the rest of us. Although the government is allegedly committed to protecting “the little guy” from environmental harm, it’s obvious that lawmakers need to take a closer look at the nation’s regulators – and their hypocritical policy of treating the powerful better than the weak.


Syd Gerntein is a research associate of The National Center for Public Policy Research and its Center for Environmental Justice.


1 Matthew Hathaway, “EPA Begins Inquiry Into State’s Approval of Landfill Proposal; State is Asked to Release Documents,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 17, 2001.
2 Edmund Peterson, “What Earth Day Means to Minority Citizens,” National Policy Analysis #193, The National Center for Public Policy Research, Washington, DC, April 1998.
3 “Endangered Species in DC Area,” remarks by Robert E. Gordon, Jr., National Wilderness Institute, Alexandria, Virginia, February 6, 2001, downloaded from http://www.nwi.org/SpecialStudies/WashConsProject/RemarksFeb6.html on January 2, 2002.
4 George Radanovich, “Who Cares About the Eagle?” Washington Times, October 16, 2000, downloaded from http://www.nwi.org/SpecialStudies/WashConsProject/WashTimesOct16OPED.html on January 2, 2002.
5 “Endangered Species in DC Area.”
6 Audrey Hudson, “Water Report Irks Westerners,” Washington Times, January 2, 2002.
7 “60-Day Notice of Intent to Sue Under the Endangered Species Act; Actions Relating to Washington Aqueduct Project,” letter from Robert E. Gordon, Jr. of the National Wilderness Institute to Penelope Dalton of the National Marine Fisheries Service, October 11, 2000, downloaded from http://www.nwi.org/SpecialStudies/WashConsProject/Oct11Notice.html on January 2, 2002.
8 “NWI Calls on Park Service to Halt Dumping of Toxic Goo in National Park,” press release, National Wilderness Institute, Alexandria, Virginia, June 12, 2001, downloaded from http://www.nwi.org/PressReleases/12June01.html on January 2, 2002.

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