U.S. News


Memo to the Next President: Fix the EPA

It has now been a full year since Michigan officials first declared a public health emergency because of lead-tainted water in the city of Flint. Since then, we have learned that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could have issued an emergency order a full four months earlier, judging from information the federal government had access to and the scope of the agency’s authority.

As it happened, the EPA didn’t take action until January 2016, a failure of accountability that an EPA inspector general report has now laid bare. This comes far too late for the 100,000 residents of Flint, where people still don’t trust the water and hundreds of children show signs of lead exposure.

One of many things the Flint crisis proves is just how imperative a shakeup of the EPA has become. The water catastrophe was set in motion by local and state authorities, whose decisions compromised the health and safety of their citizens and their own ethics, but the federal response was not just delayed: what happened in Flint is part of a trend goes well beyond confusion about legal authority and communication failures.

There are plenty of examples of the EPA failing to protect the average citizen, especially non-white citizens. In East Chicago, Indiana, 1,100 residents are fighting eviction from their homes because of lead levels in the soil that make them uninhabitable. Much like their counterparts in Flint, the West Calumet Housing Complex’s residents were exposed to lead and arsenic levels 228 times higher than what the EPA considers hazardous for children. Also like Flint, those affected are primarily low-income minority residents with nowhere else to go.

As Julia Lurie of Mother Jones put it in September, poor Americans in communities of color are exposed to toxic air and water “all the damn time.” Her article lays out just how badly the EPA has compromised its mandate to uphold environmental justice. Together with other writers and activists, she went through a new report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that puts together 230 pages of evidence proving how minorities are failed by environmental policy and failed yet again by the EPA authorities responsible for protecting them.

Under U.S. law, the EPA is bound by both the Title VI provisions of the Civil Rights Act, and a 1994 executive order signed by Bill Clinton, to make environmental justice an official duty of the federal government. The EPA’s own Office of Civil Rights (OCR) was established in 1993, but has been mired in dysfunction and has never delivered on the protections it was meant to provide.

Five years ago, an independent audit by Deloitte acknowledged the urgent need to transform the OCR, while noting a backlog of cases that stretched back ten years and practices that demonstrated why the office is “known for poor investigative quality and a lack of responsiveness.” In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity found that 90 percent of complaints alleging environmental discrimination were dismissed. As the Center put it: “the foisting of pollution on minority communities in America is racism.” The EPA, as it argued in its investigation, is actually one of the reasons why environmental racism persists.

If the agency’s failures seem evident to climate and social justice activists – not to mention families in Flint or East Chicago – the agency has hardly gotten a reprieve from the high-powered fossil fuel industry and the ordinary people who depend on it for a living. A recent court case found in favor of Murray Energy, a coal mining company, and the National Mining Association by requiring the EPA to submit a report that accurately demonstrates how air pollution rules impact jobs.

The Clean Air Act provides that those impacts must be considered, and Murray Energy successfully argued that the EPA was shirking its duties. Of course, Murray’s argument was based on the premise that strict standards on toxic emissions and lower CO2 thresholds for power plants are harming the coal industry, so it is a stretch to compare this to the outcry over pollution harming minority communities. Nonetheless, the ruling is a blow to the agency’s already poor reputation for effectiveness.

Where the EPA should be looking to get its house in order and fulfill long-neglected mandates, it has instead gotten itself sucked into more regulatory battles with unforced errors. One of the most heated surrounds glyphosate, a pesticide considered safe for decades by regulators in the U.S. and Europe. Last year, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in France declared glyphosate “probably carcinogenic,” going against findings from not only the EPA but also the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and later a joint panel of the World Health Organization (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The EPA thickened the plot in April, publishing and then mysteriously unpublishing a report confirming the EFSA and FAO/WHO findings. Though the agency has since published an issue paper that comes to the same conclusion, the misstep has invited a whole new level of scrutiny. House Science Committee chairman Lamar Smith has spent the last several months trying to extract explanations as to why the EPA seems to “draw out” its review, and other delays (like a planned scientific advisory panel being postponed) seem to be making his point. The suspense has put farmers both here and abroad on edge, even prompting some in Germany to put together their own roadside informational campaign.

Incredibly, the EPA seems to be failing both sides of the aisle and the Atlantic all at once. In the likely event Hillary Clinton takes the oath of office in January and faces the task of deciding what to do with the agency, her best move would be to revive the civil rights mandate her husband first enshrined and make sure her administration makes that commitment a reality. At the same time, she will need to make sure that her EPA is an effective implementer of robust, coherent environmental rules. At the moment, that doesn’t appear to be the case.