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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Racial Split in EPA Enforcement?

Air Date: Week of

Laura Knoy reports from Washington on charges of EPA discrimination in its enforcement of environmental laws. A study by the National Law Journal found that the average fine for pollution violations in communities of color are one-sixth those in white communities. The agency disputes the Journal's conclusions.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Race and pollution: according to a number of studies, people of color in the US bear a disproportionate burden of pollution. It's in the air and water, and it's from toxic waste sites and neighboring industries. We'll hear this week from minority communities faced with high levels of contamination. And we'll talk to a lawyer who's using strategies from the civil rights movement to raise questions of environmental racism in the courts.

But first. . . Some charge environmental racism is practiced by the government, as well as industry. This view is backed by a recent study in the National Law Journal. It shows widespread discrimination by the US Environmental Protection Agency in its enforcement of anti-pollution laws. From Washington, Laura Knoy reports.

KNOY: Journal researchers looked at all 1200 Superfund sites around the country, and studied 1600 civil fines levied on polluters by the EPA. Repeatedly they found the EPA discriminated against minorities in enforcement. The Journal's Mary Ann Laval says the agency is far more diligent in carrying out pollution law in white neighborhoods.

LAVAL: When it comes to hazardous waste law, we're talking fines that are six times higher in white communities than in minority communities. What that means is there's not as great a price to pay for violating the law, and over the years, hazardous waste polluters have congregated in minority communities.

KNOY: Looking at all kinds of pollution, the Law Journal found companies that violated laws in white neighborhoods were fined almost fifty percent more than those in minority communities. And Laval said it didn't matter whether the areas were rich or poor.

LAVAL: Somehow low income white communities are getting the response from the Federal Government that minority communities are not.

KNOY: But what's a minority community? The Law Journal had to use zip code data for its study; more detailed census tract numbers were not available. The EPA says zip codes are not an accurate measure, but a source inside the agency says while the Journal's methods were flawed, more precise data still would have shown EPA enforcement discriminates against minority neighborhoods. Agency officials admit they need to do more research themselves, but the head of EPA's enforcement office, Herb Tate, says the Journal overstates the problem by looking at only civil penalties imposed on polluters. Tate says the Journal missed a whole body of criminal cases and administrative settlements worth tens of millions of dollars.

TATE: By ignoring these cases, it does call into question whether their analysis was comprehensive. Now, this is not to say that it doesn't exist, and that there might not be bias. But their analysis was not done, we felt, in a fair and comprehensive way to make that charge.

KNOY: The Law Journal study comes on top of years of pressure from minority groups over environmental equity. Tate says the EPA is concerned about the issue.

TATE: Again, we don't know whether or not the problem is as the National Law Journal has said it is. But we definitely should not ignore it and we should deal with it up front and head on.

KNOY: The agency created a new Office of Environmental Equity this fall, and dozens of studies on the subject are under way. Environmental equity is expected to receive even more attention with Al Gore as Vice-President. As a Senator, Gore sponsored the Environmental Justice Act. The bill went nowhere last year, but is expected to be reintroduced in January. For Living on Earth, I'm Laura Knoy in Washington.



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