Civil Rights Report Wrong on Environmental Justice Priorities, by David Almasi

A New Visions Commentary paper published November 2003 by The National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited.

Select Steel, Inc. couldn’t build a steel mill in Genesee County, Michigan due to “environmental justice” concerns. Now a federal commission is suggesting that environmental justice regulations be strengthened, meaning more companies might also find their expansion plans disrupted.

To environmental activists and policymakers, “environmental justice” means all communities ought to receive equal environmental protection and regulatory enforcement regardless of race, income or culture.1 Controversies related to the topic thrive on the notion that minority and economically depressed communities bear undue environmental burdens due to their lack of political clout.

Genesee County was economically depressed due to the closing of a General Motors plant.2 The overwhelmingly white population wanted the new mill and the 200 jobs projected to come with it.3 The EPA and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality agreed the mill would meet federal pollution limits.4Approval of the new plant should have been simple. It wasn’t.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12,898 to require that the federal government and federal beneficiaries be mindful of environmental justice concerns.5 Months of environmental justice-related legal challenges were filed by activists against the Select Steel proposal, leading the company to build elsewhere. Commenting on the campaign against the mill, Congressman James Barcia (D-MI) lamented, “I can’t understand it. They just don’t want economic development.”6

Commissioners of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recently endorsed a staff report asking the federal government to impose stricter environmental justice standards. The report, however, is flawed because it pits two critical needs of disadvantaged communities at odds with one another: environmental protection and new job creation.

Staffers who compiled the report hold a dim view of current environmental justice efforts. Complaints, they say, aren’t processed fast enough, and too many are dismissed7 – even when they are dismissed for the right reasons. In the case of Select Steel, an activist cited in the report faults the EPA for dismissing a complaint because the proposed plant met pollution guidelines.8

There’s even criticism of brownfields revitalization. Brownfields are polluted properties that remain blighted because regulations saddle new owners with the legal liabilities of the previous polluters. The Commission’s report faults recent brownfields reform because it promotes new manufacturing and small business over “clean industry” like “schools, colleges and universities and financial institutions.”9 A brownfield in Harlem that became a Home Depot that created 400 new part-time jobs is criticized in the report for increasing truck traffic.10

Current environmental justice policy, however, doesn’t address problems the government’s own rules and regulations pose to at-risk communities. “Smart growth” land use policies are an example. An econometric report conducted for The National Center for Public Policy Research found that zoning restrictions like those celebrated in Portland, Oregon could have prevented a million households – a quarter of them minorities – from owning a home during the 1990s had they been imposed nationally.11 Despite this new segregation affecting the environmental justice constituency most, it doesn’t seem to register much concern with the Commission’s staff.

Likewise, the economic threat of restrictions related to the unproven theory of global warming go unaddressed. The National Black Chamber of Commerce commissioned a study of the Kyoto Protocol that found consumer prices would skyrocket and an estimated 1.2 million or more blacks and Hispanics would lose their jobs if our government forced industry compliance with the international emissions treaty.12 This also is not cited by the Commision’s report as an environmental justice concern.

The Civil Rights Commission is known for its radicalism. Chairman Mary Frances Berry, a liberal activist, tried to deny Bush-appointed commissioner Peter Kirsanow voting rights and staff support in favor of a Clinton appointee whose term had expired.13 Bias in commission reports can almost be expected.

Those with power should not be allowed to improperly impose their will upon others. Focusing solely on business and the whims of left-wing environmentalists while ignoring how government can make life harder for the disadvantaged, as this report does, will produce no relief.

Genuine environmental justice reform must focus on both environmental protection and preserving economic stability. Minorities, after all, need jobs just like everyone else. But the U.S. Civil Rights Commission is continuing to pit environmental and economic objectives against each other. And that’s only going to further hurt those who are already hurting.

(David Almasi is the director of the African-American leadership network Project 21.. Comments may be sent to [email protected].)



1 1 “Not In My Backyard: Executive Order 12,898 and Title VI as Tools for Achieving Environmental Justice,” draft report for the commissioners’ review, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Washington, D.C., September 4, 2003, p. 15, referencing a August 9, 2001 memorandum from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman.

2 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.

3 Ibid.

4 “Not In My Backyard,” p. 63.

5 Ibid., p. 1.

6 Centrone, referencing David Mastio, “Mostly Whites Live Near Proposed Mill Site,” The Detroit News, August 27, 1998.

7 “Not In My Backyard,” pp. 62-67.

8 Ibid., p. 63.

9 Ibid., p. 28.

10 Ibid., p. 28.

11Smart Growth and Its Effects on Housing Markets: The New Segregation,” The National Center for Public Policy Research, Washington, D.C., November 2002, p. II.

12 “Potential Economic Impacts on the Kyoto Climate Change Protocol on Blacks and Hispanics in the U.S.” Management Information Services, Inc., Washington, D.C., June 2000, available at as of October 3, 2003.

13 “Civil Rights Commission Refuses to Seat Black Appointee,” Project 21 press release, The National Center for Public Policy Research, Washington, D.C., December 7, 2001, available at

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