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.4 Approval of the new plant should have been simple.
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
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.
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
7 "Not In My Backyard," pp. 62-67.
8 Ibid., p. 63.
9 Ibid., p. 28.
10 Ibid., p. 28.
11 "Smart 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
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 http://www.nationalcenter.org/P21PRKirsanow1201.html.