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Internal Review Finds Environmental Agencies Violating Civil Rights

Overhead, distanced veiw of long warehouses and rectangular ponds in a valley.

North Carolina has received repeated complaints about the state’s lax regulation of hog waste disposal and its disproportionate impact on communities of color. This drone photo from 2012 shows CAFO hog waste lagoons in North Carolina. (Waterkeeper Alliance/flickr)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in charge of making sure state programs it funds do not  “discriminate based on race, color, or national origin.”

But a new report, from the agency’s own Office of the Inspector General, highlights what was already long known: state environmental agencies do not protect citizens from discrimination, and the EPA does not hold them to account.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits the use of EPA funding for agencies or programs that discriminate.

But most state agencies fall far short of the effort needed to prevent environmental discrimination, which includes violations such as allowing polluting facilities to set up shop in predominantly Black communities.

Notoriously toxic hog farm feeding operations, called CAFOs, are among the kinds of agricultural polluters found in areas with residents who are disproportionately Black and Indigenous people of color. 

A 2002 study found that in North Carolina, one of the country's top pork-producing states, swine CAFOs are located disproportionately in low-income and African American communities. 

A Duke University study in 2016 found that CAFOs are a breeding ground and magnifier for virus outbreaks such as seasonal flus that often jump to nearby populations earlier than other parts of the state. 

The EPA has not ruled any CAFO complaints to be cases of discrimination.     

The recent inspector general report, conducted by a special civil rights working group within the IG office, said that in August this year, 43 states lacked at least one crucial element on the EPA’s list of nondiscrimination criteria. 

Violations included lack of clearly posted nondiscrimination notices, help for people with limited proficiency in English, and having a nondiscrimination coordinator on staff. 

The report said the EPA was mostly reactive in its enforcement of the rules, passively waiting for complaints before investigating issues.

The EPA responded by saying the report did not include improvements the agency has made over the last three years, including a new strategic plan, faster response to complaints, and more training. 

The agency’s past shortcomings on enforcement of the discrimination law have been well documented. 

In 2015, the watchdog group Center for Public Integrity reported that the EPA had dismissed 95 percent of all complaints since 1996, with 162 cases rejected, 38 cases with no review at all, and a total of 64 accepted for investigation. 

Under federal rules, the EPA has 20 days to decide whether to investigate a complaint. 

Out of the cases through 2015, 25 cases took more than 5 years to investigate, and dozens more took more than two years. 

To date, the agency has only ruled once that discrimination took place. 

That case involved Michigan’s environmental agency’s hearings about a wood-burning facility built in a majority Black neighborhood in flint. 

The complaints said hearings were held 65 miles from the affected neighborhood, were guarded with armed personnel, and prioritized white over Black commenters. 

The incident took the EPA 25 years to investigate and rule.

As reported by Grist, the agency received 57 complaints of discrimination betwteen 2016 and March 2020. Sixteen of those were accepted for investigation.

The Inspector General’s Office recommended the EPA conduct reviews of state agencies before they receive federal funding, conduct more training for EPA staff, and review compliance on discrimination policies for all EPA funding recipients.

The IG report follows a report over the summer from a racial justice advocacy group connected with a government employee union that alleged racial bias at an EPA field office in Chicago. 

The working group affiliated with the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, titled the Racial Justice and Decolonization Committee, formed in June this year following nationwide protests in the wake of the May killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.

The group said the local EPA office has long been plagued by racist microaggressions and biased hiring and promotion practices, with one employee telling Bloomberg Law that the office is a hostile work environment, with “pervasive fear and pervasive struggle from people of color members, overwhelmingly.”

In August, a Black EPA employee filed a lawsuit in California alleging discrimination, retaliation, and a hostile work environment.  

Meanwhile, in September the EPA postponed training on environmental discrimination against communities of color and low-income communities after a White House order calling for agencies to stop training involving what it described as "anti-American propaganda.”

The Trump administration has made several moves that racial justice advocates say harm communities of color, including a rollback of rules that once required environmental impact reports to analyze how pollution from construction projects would combine with other pollutants in a surrounding community. 

Read More:

Report: Environmental Agencies Are Violating Civil Rights Laws — And The Epa Is Letting Them (Grist)

‘Decolonization’ Group Alleges Racial Bias at EPA Field Office (Bloomberg Law)

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