"All environmental protection, like all politics, is quite local," Environmental Protection Agency director Lisa Jackson told her staff this month. "Very few people come to environmental protection because they wake up one morning and read a book about it. They come to environmental protection because it touches them -- the lack of that protection, a fear about an environmental outcome, or about their health or their family's health motivates them to some type of action."
Not since the early 1990s -- when President Clinton's appointee Carol Browner headed the agency and established its office of environmental justice -- has an EPA administrator focused on the degradation and pollution of communities of color. Since taking office nearly one year ago, Jackson -- the first African American to head the agency -- has announced that the EPA will assess the impacts of its hazardous waste rule on disadvantaged communities and appointed senior advisers for environmental justice and civil rights in order to address the burdens faced by communities disproportionately affected by pollution.
And now, with Congressional Black Caucus chair Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Jackson will tour several areas of the country -- including South Carolina, Maryland, Georgia and Mississippi -- to highlight environmental justice challenges.
Part of Jackson's initiative is "expanding the conversation of environmentalism" to include environmental justice in "every action we take."
"We have begun a new era of outreach and protection for communities historically underrepresented in EPA decision-making," Jackson wrote to her staff, listing priorities for 2010. "We are building strong working relationships with tribes, communities of color, economically distressed cities and towns, young people and others, but this is just a start. We must include environmental justice principles in all of our decisions. This is an area that calls for innovation and bold thinking, and I am challenging all of our employees to bring vision and creativity to our programs. The protection of vulnerable subpopulations is a top priority, especially with regard to children.
Representing the 42-member Congressional Black Caucus, which calls itself "the conscience of Congress since 1971," Lee said, "The consequences of global climate change, disastrous trends of environmental degradation, and our nation's perilous dependence on fossil fuels are being felt in communities here in the United States and around the world, especially in communities of color."
The next issue of High Country News focuses on environmental justice in the West and inaugurates our special coverage of this topic.