EPA to change the way it handles environmental justice complaints

Posted: May 6, 2013

Written by

Emily Yehle, Greenwire
Energy backyard

U.S. EPA plans to change the way it investigates environmental justice complaints, recently releasing two policy papers that address long-standing criticism of the agency's Office of Civil Rights.

The papers target so-called Title VI complaints, which are named after a provision in the Civil Rights Act that prohibits recipients of federal funding from using the money in a discriminatory way. The Office of Civil Rights has struggled to keep up with complaints in the past; in 2011, it struggled with a backlog that stretched back to 2001 (Greenwire, April 4, 2011).

Environmental groups have also argued that even when EPA addresses a complaint, it leaves complainants out of the process. In 2011, for example, the agency settled a 12-year-old complaint that Latino schoolchildren in California were unjustly exposed to a harmful pesticide. But EPA officials did not include parents in the negotiations, and advocacy groups panned the "secret settlement" as weak and ineffective (E&ENews PM, Aug. 25, 2011).

EPA now plans to broaden the involvement of complainants, as outlined in one of the policy papers posted in the Federal Register last week. The papers are part of the agency's efforts to make "improving its civil rights program a priority," according to the notice in the Register.

Currently, the agency's policy largely excludes the complainant from the investigative process, except to ask questions on the complaint and seek additional information. Under the new policy, EPA would aim to notify complainants -- and not just the company or individual accused -- when it issues a "preliminary finding of noncompliance."

The agency could also "engage complainants who want to provide input on potential remedies," though that involvement would be completely up to EPA's discretion.

The second paper proposes to eliminate EPA's current policy of assuming a company is not violating Title VI if it complies with National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Currently, the Office of Civil Rights dismisses a complaint if the accused party meets health-based thresholds.

The new policy would weigh compliance with other factors such as "the existence of hot spots, cumulative impacts, the presence of particularly sensitive populations that were not considered in the establishment of the health-based standard, misapplication of environmental standards, or the existence of site-specific data demonstrating an adverse impact despite compliance with the health-based threshold."

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