The National Sea Grant Law Center


  • OIG Report Finds EPA Struggles With Environmental Justice Initiatives

  • August 7th, 2020 — by Mikayla Mangle — Category: Environmental Justice

  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” In its recent fiscal year 2020-2021 report, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) identified environmental justice as one of the eight top management challenges the EPA has struggled with and needs to improve on. According to the report, the OIG and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have consistently found that the EPA is not measuring up to its definition of environmental justice. The report specifically stated, “EPA needs to enhance its consideration of environmental justice across programs and regions and provide leadership in this area for the federal government.”

    In its report, the OIG specifically identified how the EPA is struggling with environmental justice. One of its struggles relates to its role on the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice. The EPA chairs this Interagency Working Group established by President Clinton’s Executive Order 12898, which requires federal agencies to make “achieving environmental justice” part of their missions. As the Interagency Working Group chair, the EPA has the responsibility to lead other federal entities in their efforts to fully implement environmental justice requirements. In examining the EPA’s Interagency Working Group role, OIG relied on findings in the GAO’s 2019 environmental justice report that the EPA needs to strengthen its leadership in the Interagency Working Group due to the fact that many federal agencies did not establish plans, measures, or consistent reports on environmental justice activities. The OIG’s report also states that the EPA should develop specific goals in its “EJ 2020 Action Agenda” for environmental justice. For example, the EJ 2020 Action Agenda says it will offer environmental justice training to all state and local agencies but does not specify how many trainings will occur.

    The OIG also found that environmental justice gaps exist in almost all of the EPA’s activities, such as managing air quality, drinking water, toxic release to surface waters, emergency response, and environmental education, and that the EPA struggles with oversight of state programs. For example, the report noted that the residents of Flint, Michigan were exposed to lead in drinking water in 2018 due to a delayed federal response that failed to identify drinking water risks. The OIG recommended that the EPA implement a system to identify management risks in state drinking waters that include environmental justice concerns. The report also noted that in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, several communities were not notified of emission spikes in their communities caused by the hurricane.

    The OIG ended its report by discussing the EPA’s current activities in regard to environmental justice. The OIG noted that the EPA has taken several actions over the past couple years that actually reverse environmental justice efforts. Since 2017, the EPA’s budget requests for environmental justice efforts have decreased greatly and continue to do so. The EPA requested $2.73 million in environmental justice funding for 2021, which was a $6.82 million reduction from 2020. This garnered attention from the OIG because, as a former EPA assistant associate administrator explained in the report, the budget cuts to environmental justice programs will increase health issues and decrease economic opportunities in communities disproportionately affected by environmental issues. In the report’s conclusion, the OIG urged the EPA to reaffirm its commitment to Executive Order 12898 by providing leadership in environmental justice initiatives and making sure environmental justice is integrated into every program and regional office within the EPA.

  • Mikayla Mangle
    2020 SGLDIP Intern

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