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February 26, 2014

A Witness to Environmental Justice Over 20 Years

Rita at NEJAC 2

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy proclaimed the month of February 2014 as Environmental Justice Month. Environmental justice activists all across the country are commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898 signed by President Bill Clinton twenty years ago on February 11, 1994.

This column was written by Sierra Club Environmental Justice Organizer Rita Harris, pictured above on the right.

Wow, it's really been 20 years! I remember where I was on that day in 1994 clearly. I was attending a conference at the Crystal City Marriott being hosted by NIEHS (National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences). There was a horrible snow storm and government offices in Washington, D.C. were all closed. However, word was quickly passing around the crowds of people at the conference that a select group of activists from our ranks had been called over to the White House.

There was so much excitement among the attendees, and it grew even wilder once the group returned and told us why they went to the White House. We were told that President Clinton had signed an Executive Order that would mandate all federal agencies develop strategic plans to address environmental justice (EJ). This was groundbreaking and historic! Many of the activists that were present at the conference and at the signing felt like this was just the one-two punch that was needed to help us with our many EJ fights and help communities across the country.  "EJ will finally be recognized now that we have the President in our corner," is what some said.

The back story to the Executive Order's signing was that strong grassroots EJ advocates on the EPA National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), which was established in 1993, actually pushed for Clinton to take the executive action he took in 1994. Although federal agencies did produce plans to address environmental justice in their decision making, environmental justice was not practiced or addressed in local government agencies and within most state environmental agencies. EJ battles are still taking place across this country and many times the term itself is even challenged, so the struggle continues.

There have been many success stories -- just not as many as EJ activists would have hoped. Over the past 20 years we have seen a few Superfund sites remediated, some Brownfields have been redeveloped, some buyouts have occurred that relocated residents plagued by toxic hazards, some polluters have been shut down, and some 'bad actors' have been criminally prosecuted.

Partnerships have been promoted, colleges and universities have embraced EJ communities and worked to alleviate suffering and raise the level of consciousness about disproportionate amounts of pollution and contamination in neighborhoods. Large environmental groups like the Sierra Club that had not traditionally been involved in EJ felt compelled to do so and established staff and programs to support poor and people of color communities.

Within the Sierra Club EJ guidelines and procedures were developed to ensure we worked in a respectful and sensitive way. In the broader community, lots of policy work has been done to counter policy work that was being done by corporate and business lobbyists. Numerous reports, articles, and academic studies have been produced.  Numerous books have been written on the subject of EJ, and folks from coast to coast have kept the EJ movement fires burning over the years.

When I think back to all the community members that were "fighters" and present at the time Executive Order 12898 was signed in 1994, I am saddened because many have passed away. They fought a good fight for so many years, but have left us with a legacy that demands we continue to be strong fighters for clean healthy communities and never give up.  
Rita at NEJAC 3
(L to R, Vernice Miller-Travis of the Maryland State Commission on Environmental Justice & Sustainable Communities; Rita Harris; Angelo Logan of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice in Los Angeles; Richard Moore, former member of NEJAC and former director of the Southwest Organizing Project in New Mexico; and Charles Lee, the deputy associate administrator for environmental justice at the EPA.)

These were my personal thoughts as I sat in the EPA National Environmental Justice Council meeting held in Denver, Colorado, on February 11, 2014. I had the opportunity to participate in the 20th anniversary commemoration of Executive Order 12898 with other colleagues and friends. It was a time to reflect and also a time to rededicate ourselves to continuing the hard work of so many fighting for environmental justice. In addition, there was a moment of silence for all those EJ fighters who have passed away that was quite moving.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy attended and addressed NEJAC, expressing continued support for environmental justice communities coast to coast. The political climate has given us peaks and valleys in the EJ movement and has activists now trying to regain the momentum we lost during eight years of the Bush Administration. As we all know, we must keep the pressure on to achieve success, but at least for now we have an EPA administrator that supports environmental justice. "EJ Plan 2014" is the EPA's roadmap to achieve success. We can all help keep the focus on support for EJ issues and EJ communities.

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