The Magazine


Aug 3, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 45 • By HENRY PAYNE
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Thanks to the Clinton administration's notion of "environmental justice," black Americans in poor communities are being deprived of industry, jobs, and economic growth.

Only last April, at a New Orleans hotel, Vice President Al Gore basked in the applause of a roomful of black mayors. He had just announced an expansion of the federal empowerment-zone program, a popular bipartisan initiative that provides tax incentives to stimulate jobs and economic development in poor areas.

But just three months later, at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Reno, those same mayors joined their colleagues in unanimously passing a resolution that denounced the administration for a new environmental rule undercutting its "stated policies of encouraging urban revitalization, retention of existing businesses and brownfield redevelopment." The mayors were upset that the Environmental Protection Agency had stealthily drafted a policy stipulating that any emissions-producing facility that has a "disparate impact" on minorities -- that is, one whose emissions affect communities that are predominantly non-white -- violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

At a time when black unemployment remains stubbornly high, local officials are puzzled that the administration would impose a policy that threatens economic initiatives such as enterprise zones that are meant to bring industry into low-income areas and "brownfields" (abandoned industrial properties). But this "environmental justice" rule is a natural manifestation of the green politics espoused by the vice president -- and it is hurting the very people it is intended to help.

Some state environmental officials describe the EPA's policy as a form of "redlining," because it effectively marks off minority areas from business investment. "There is not a brownfield in New Orleans that is not in a minority community," says Fred Barrow, a Louisiana environmental official who leads that state's efforts to develop brownfields. He fears the EPA's policy could make the entire city ineligible for development.

So too, officials in Lansing, Mich., are trying to convince General Motors to locate a 7,000-job assembly plant in a brownfield bordered by a poor, black neighborhood. "If the EPA's Title VI policy persists," says Russ Harding, commissioner of Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality, "GM will not build in Lansing. And the losers will not be the company. The losers will be the city and the workers who won't get the jobs."

The EPA's rule applies not only to new facilities, but also to existing facilities that want to expand or need federal "re-permitting." Throughout the country, state and local officials say they believe the EPA's "environmental justice" policy will force industries to locate away from poor, minority areas to avoid costly litigation. Says Detroit mayor Dennis Archer, who drafted the mayors' resolution in Reno, the EPA's policy is "so vague and so broad that it nullifies everything that we have done to attract companies to our brown-field sites."

Seventeen states -- from California to Illinois to New Jersey -- have formally complained to the EPA, and the list of state groups protesting the EPA's policy is growing daily. In the past two months, the Environmental Council of the States, the National Association of Counties, the National Association of Black County Officials, and 14 state attorneys general have all demanded that the EPA withdraw its rule. Members of the Western Governors' Association have also voted unanimously against the rule -- and one of those voting was Roy Romer of Colorado, who also happens to be chairman of the Democratic National Committee: an indication of just how serious a political problem the EPA's edict has become for the administration.

The intense criticism from big-city mayors and state environmental officials -- traditionally Democratic allies -- puts the administration in a delicate position. The "environmental justice" movement, spear-headed by radical groups like Greenpeace and Earth Justice, along with black leftists such as Ben Chavis, contends that industries -- and the state agencies that oversee them -- deliberately target minority communities for high-pollution facilities because residents lack the political clout to stop them. The Clinton administration has embraced this movement. Said EPA administrator and Gore protegee Carol Browner in 1994, "Nobody can question that, for far too long, communities across this country -- low-income, minority communities -- have been asked to bear a disproportionate share of our modern industrial life."

EPA critics contend that "environmental justice" regulations are a narrow reading of economic development. "The EPA is missing a fundamental concept," says Harding of Michigan. "A siting decision is always a series of tradeoffs. The EPA's rule does not acknowledge the economic benefits a facility brings."

In Louisiana, one company has come up against the EPA obstacle. The Shintech Corporation wants to build a $ 700 million polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics facility in Romeville, a poor community within a state-designated enterprise zone near Baton Rouge. The plant would provide the area with 2,000 jobs during construction and 255 permanent jobs. Shintech has promised job training and employment initiatives, the product of discussions with a local citizens' group and the state's Department of Environmental Quality. "Blacks are supposed to play their roles as victims," says Nanette Jolivette, a lawyer for the citizens' group. "But this community did not play that role."

Because 82 percent of residents within a four-mile radius of the plant are black, however, opponents have filed a complaint under the EPA's new Title VI policy, arguing that the plant's location is racist. Representing these opponents is Greenpeace, which has an ulterior motive -- it seeks an international ban on PVC production. Though the plant easily meets federal emissions requirements, it is unlikely to stand up under EPA Title VI scrutiny.

"What more do we have to do to get a plant approved?" sighs David Wise, project engineer for Shintech's plant, who says the company chose the Romeville site mainly for its access to raw materials and transportation. Wise notes that Shintech already has a big PVC plant in predominantly white Freeport, Texas -- which belongs to one of the wealthiest counties in the state. He echoes states' concerns that the EPA's policy ignores sound, peer-reviewed science.

In a comprehensive review of "environmental justice" studies, Stephen Huebner of Washington University finds no evidence that minorities suffer a disproportionate exposure to pollution. Where disparities do exist, Huebner writes, "the dynamics of the housing market provide a plausible explanation."

Even the EPA's own studies -- which the agency declines to make public -- reportedly find no link between pollution and race. In documents uncovered by Detroit News reporter David Mastio, two EPA studies of Superfund sites show that whites are more likely than blacks to live around polluted sites. The House Commerce Committee is investigating whether the EPA withheld these studies from Congress because their conclusions did not support agency policy.

If the EPA rules against Shintech, it will not be the first industry killed in Louisiana this year by the Clinton administration's "environmental justice." Last April, a consortium of utilities pulled the plug on an $ 855 million nuclear-fuel-enrichment facility in rural Claiborne Parish, near the state's Arkansas border. Like Shintech, the enrichment plant was sited in a state-designated enterprise zone, had broad public support, and had received all of its state safety and emissions permits.

But the plant's location, miles from population centers, did not shield it from charges of "environmental racism." A small group of local opponents -- backed by anti-nuclear activists from Greenpeace and Earth Justice -- cited the 250 homes, most of them occupied by black families, scattered near the plant as evidence that the plant's location was racially motivated. "The EPA has designed environmental justice for outside interest groups with their own agendas," says Janice Dickerson of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. "The EPA has locked communities out of the process."

The result is a growing feeling of disenfranchisement among local leaders, who fear that the Washington-imposed policy will negate their ability to address local problems. As Loy Weaver, a Claiborne Parish banker, says of "environmental justice" rules that have cost his community coveted manufacturing jobs, "Had we been able to bring this to a local vote, we would have gotten this plant. We were not given that opportunity because of the federal regulatory process."

Protests like that have been heard on Capitol Hill. The House will soon vote on an amendment to an appropriations bill prohibiting the EPA from funding its Title VI enforcement efforts (though 15 cases currently under review would not be affected).

Carol Browner has indicated a willingness to talk about the details of the administration's rule, but she clings to a policy that the states find unworkable. The California Environmental Protection Agency, in a letter demanding that the policy be withdrawn, argues that the federal agency cannot "lawfully issue a policy" without an act of Congress. Otherwise, Browner & Co. would have "unfettered discretion" to work all sorts of mischief.

And then there is the matter of fairness and common sense. Chris Foreman, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, has just completed a book on the "environmental justice" issue, and he scolds the administration for mixing its green ambitions with racial politics: "The administration ought to be talking about the real health problem in poor communities: poverty."

Henry Payne is a political cartoonist and writer for the Scripps Howard News Service.