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."