Obama Administration Issues Environmental Justice MOU

On Aug. 4, 17 federal agencies signed a memorandum of understanding that aims to address and reduce the disproportionate harm from environmental degradation that affects indigenous, low-income, and minority communities. The "Memorandum of Understanding on Environmental Justice and Executive Order 12898" (MOU EJ) is the most recent step taken by the Obama administration to address the environmental burdens facing these communities and to encourage people from affected communities to participate in public processes designed to improve environmental health and safety.

The MOU EJ lays out agency responsibilities and formalizes commitments, processes, and procedures outlined in Executive Order (E.O.) 12898, "Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations," issued by President Bill Clinton in 1994. The MOU EJ expands the scope of the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice to include agencies not originally named in E.O. 12898. It also adopts an Interagency Working Group charter, providing the working group with more structure and direction.

By signing the MOU EJ, agencies agree to develop environmental justice strategies, ensure public input into those strategies, and collaborate with other agencies on environmental justice issues. Each agency is required to review, update, and post online its existing or draft environmental justice strategies by Sept. 30. Agencies must get public input on their strategies, though no specific process for encouraging participation is required. Final environmental justice strategies will be posted online by Feb. 11, 2012.

The MOU EJ also requires participating agencies to provide annual progress reports on their efforts to address environmental justice issues. These reports will include progress on implementing environmental justice strategies and performance measures identified by each agency, as well as responses to any questions or recommendations provided by the public.

Agencies must focus on particular problems afflicting the environment and health of minority and low-income communities, including the impacts of climate adaptation and commercial transportation, as well as implementing the National Environmental Policy Act and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


Environmental justice, as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is the

fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.... It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.

The issue emerged as a concept and movement in the early 1980s by indigenous, minority, and low-income community groups subject to a growing number of hazardous and polluting industries located within their neighborhoods. According to the 2007 environmental justice report, Toxic Waste and Race at 20, more than nine million people are estimated to live in neighborhoods within two miles of 413 hazardous waste facilities nationwide. Neighborhoods that host commercial hazardous waste facilities average 56 percent minority populations, whereas areas without such facilities average just 30 percent minority populations. Neighborhoods within two miles of waste facilities are typically economically depressed, with poverty rates 1.5 times greater than communities beyond the two-mile radius. The struggle to defend local communities from environmental hazards became closely linked to the civil rights and other social movements and is predominantly led by grassroots minority groups.

The environmental justice movement was surprisingly successful in drawing attention to this disparity over the years. The EPA, under President George H.W. Bush, established an Office of Environmental Justice. President Clinton further advanced the movement by enacting E.O. 12898, which directed federal agencies to develop a strategy for implementing environmental justice, but many advocates feel little has been done to implement the order.

Environmental Justice under President Obama

The Obama administration has undertaken several environmental justice initiatives. In September 2010, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley reconvened the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice for the first time in more than a decade. In December 2010, the White House organized the Environmental Justice Forum, where cabinet secretaries and senior administration officials met with more than 100 environmental justice leaders from across the country to discuss environmental and public health issues affecting their communities. At the meeting, the administration recommitted to advancing the mandate of E.O. 12898.

The Obama administration also launched the Partnership for Sustainable Communities grant program, which awards grants each year for "livable and sustainable communities" around the country. The EPA also developed Plan EJ 2014, a roadmap that will help the agency integrate environmental justice into all programs, policies, and activities.

Environmental justice, environmental, and public health organizations welcome the administration’s efforts to elevate environmental justice issues and increase interactions with environmental justice communities. The recommendations in An Agenda to Strengthen Our Right to Know, endorsed by more than 100 organizations, included full implementation of E.O. 12898 and expanding its coverage to include additional agencies. Additional recommendations involved improving the scope of equity-based data collection, identifying sources and methods for obtaining and analyzing environmental justice data, widely disseminating this data, and improving capacity-building in affected communities.

In a press release announcing the MOU EJ, Jackson states, "All too often, low-income, minority and Native Americans live in the shadows of our society’s worst pollution, facing disproportionate health impacts and greater obstacles to economic growth in communities that can’t attract businesses and new jobs…. Expanding the conversation on environmentalism and working for environmental justice are some of my top priorities for the work of the EPA, and we’re glad to have President Obama’s leadership and the help of our federal partners in this important effort."

However, with the EPA in the crosshairs of House Republicans and an across-the-board attack on all federal regulatory agencies, it seems that a lack of funding may hinder the realization of these goals.

The following agencies signed the EJ MOU: EPA; White House Council on Environmental Quality; Department of Health and Human Services; Department of Justice; Department of Agriculture; Department of Commerce; Department of Defense; Department of Education; Department of Energy; Department of Homeland Security; Department of Housing and Urban Development; Department of the Interior; Department of Labor; Department of Transportation; Department of Veterans Affairs; General Services Administration; and Small Business Administration.

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