Looking Back To The Past

February 11th marked the 20th anniversary of former President Clinton’s Executive Order 12898, “Federal Actions To Address Environmental Justice (EJ) in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations.” This Executive Order has been monumental for the Environmental Justice movement due to the number of agencies that were called to act on this measure. Typically low-income and minority groups are adversely affected by environmental issues like climate change and pollution when most of the time these groups are the least involved. EJ works towards eliminating these disparities. Soon after the inception of this Executive Order, the EPA created an Interagency Working Group (IWG) on Environmental Justice. About 17 agencies belong to this group including the Department of Energy, the Department of Interior, the EPA, and many more. They were charged with guiding federal agencies on criteria for “identifying disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects on minority populations and low-income populations”. Administration, interpretation and enforcement of programs, activities and policies must be influenced by an environmental justice strategy as well. Two decades have passed which allows us to look to the past, present and future to gauge the progress these federal agencies have made under the guidance of this Executive Order.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of this Order, WE ACT is finding ways to hold federal agencies accountable for including environmental justice in every aspect of their agency from policies to research. A major component of the Order focused on community involvement and ordered agencies to include the voice of different communities as agencies implement different programs. WE ACT prides itself for the work it does to include people who may be overlooked due to their race, social status, legal status, etc. The annual progress reports for 2013 will be released sometime in the next few weeks in which agencies self report on how well they are following their implementation guidelines. WE ACT is creating an environmental justice scorecard that will concisely measure how an agency is performing against the Executive Order and their implementation plans. Federal agencies release reports that can vary from 10-50 pages and most people do not have the patience or time to read through these lengthy reports. By creating a scorecard we hope to achieve better visibility for the progress agencies are making as well as a way to encourage them to improve in areas that have room for growth.

Moving forward I will be updating this blog with my progress on the scorecard. A driving force for this scorecard is the fact that other aspects of environmental health have different measures for agencies. After doing extensive research, I could not find an EJ scorecard, which is a disservice to the Executive Order. The White House has sustainability plans for all agencies but has failed to incorporate EJ. After creating a template we aim to refine it and receive input from agencies that would benefit from this scorecard. The final goal is for the scorecard to apply to all the IWG agencies as well as those not included. This EJ scorecard will be but one small step towards ensuring that all federal agencies are following through with their promises. People need to be aware that there are statutes in place that allow them to provide their input on different matters and that every comment made is considered and acknowledged. This is an extremely vital component to the movement that we all need to improve upon.

The EPA has declared this February as Environmental Justice Month to celebrate 12898. WE ACT will definitely capitalize on this anniversary and we hope that others use this time to reflect on our progress and that we all keep moving forward with this important movement. I grew up in Houston, TX and was constantly sick with asthma. My health did not better until I went away for high school in a small town in Massachusetts where I could actually see the stars and mountains in the horizon. I never made the connection that Houston’s polluted air may have worsened my condition. Houston is known for its oil refineries and is near the Gulf of Mexico. As I have grown older I have learned more about the smog that plagues Houston. I live in a community where most do not realize that living next to Port of Houston increases our exposure to pollutants. The asthma rates have steadily increased and are something I want to change and have realized is a justice issue. Click through the links in this blog and learn more about the different agencies employed to protect our right to a clean and healthy environment. Maybe you live in an area similar to mine and have not realized it. Take a few minutes and do some research on your community whether it is about the air quality, water quality, waste management, etc. and think of ways you can start chipping away at these issues.

Written by: Mayra Cruz