Obama EPA Racing Through Finish Line With Civil Rights Plan

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By Rachel Leven

States and other federal-funding recipients will receive additional tools and reviews by the Environmental Protection Agency as part of its efforts to beef up anti-environmental racism protections, according to a recently released final agency plan.

Civil rights advocates told Bloomberg BNA this plan and a manual detailing how to process complaints that was released the same day signify progress—with a major caveat.

“So much of this is overshadowed by the question of whether [the next administration] will enforce civil rights at all,” Marianne Engelman-Lado, visiting clinical professor at Yale Law School and civil rights advocate, told Bloomberg BNA. “To have these procedures … are a statement of how things should work.”

These actions are the latest in a line of actions the Obama administration EPA has taken on civil rights in its final days. That includes the recent move to the EPA’s Office of General Counsel of the external compliance program enforcing the Civil Rights Act’s Title VI and certain other anti-discrimination laws. These actions together are helping to solidify the administration’s legacy on civil rights, Vernice Miller-Travis, civil rights advocate, told Bloomberg BNA.

“Even without looking at it, it’s got to be progress,” said Miller-Travis, senior associate at Skeo Solutions Inc. “It leaves a path for success of administrations to follow.”

Strategic Plan

The EPA’s actions on Title VI, a law that aims to prevent and address discrimination based on race, color or national origin by federal funding recipients, have come under fire from advocates and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. They have accused EPA of not aggressively enforcing the civil rights laws.

The strategic plan lays out goals for the agency’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office through 2020, mapping out plans to boost its effectiveness and efficiency. It charts those under three areas, aiming to:

  •  enhance strategic docket management;
  •  develop a proactive compliance program;
  •  strengthen the office’s workforce.
One significant promise in the plan is to release a toolkit for federal funding recipients to help them comply with Title VI, a product that has been in the works “for a while,” Engelman-Lado said. This guidance for recipients is important because without it, recipients face difficulty in figuring out how to comply with Title VI, and the lack of guidance makes it difficult for the EPA to enforce, she said.

Some changes in the strategic plan, such as leaving deadlines intact for the EPA to process complaints, were met with support. But other parts left Engelman-Lado concerned.

For example, she lauded that the agency had a transparency section, but said its commitments, such as producing an annual report, left much to be desired. Its commitment to coordinate with the Office of Environmental Justice where appropriate is also too vague, she said.

Challenges

Another key area of concern for Engelman-Lado was the office’s focus on ticking the boxes of a Title VI compliance program for federal funding recipients rather than focusing on more substantive requirements.

For example, the agency’s plan doesn’t address the “critical” issue of defining disparate impact. What does it look like for a majority-minority community to be disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution, for example, even if all of those pollution sources are permitted?

“That is a near-fatal defect in the EPA program,” Engelman-Lado told Bloomberg BNA.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rachel Leven in Washington, D.C., at rleven@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

For More Information

The strategic plan is available at http://src.bna.com/lrb.The case resolution manual is available at http://src.bna.com/lrc.

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