White House Holds First Ever Environmental Justice Forum

GlobeThe White House held an Environmental Justice Forum on December 15, 2010 – the first ever such forum. Participants included Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson, Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) Chair Nancy Sutley, and Attorney General Eric Holder (recipient of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law’s 2010 Equal Justice Award), as well as over 100 environmental groups. The forum reinforced President Obama’s goal of requiring federal agencies to consider environmental justice impacts in their daily decision-making. 

The forum comes after EPA’s Jackson and CEQ’s Sutley reconvened the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice for the first time in 10 years, and the White House announced its recommitment to the Executive Order on Environmental Justice, which requires federal agencies to collaborate to further the goal of ensuring that minority, low-income, and other underrepresented communities do not bear the brunt of environmental degradation.

In his remarks, Attorney General Holder said that the Justice Department’s Environmental Justice Initiative will address the link between race, economics, employment, and environmental sustainability by integrating environmental justice goals into its enforcement and strategic planning. He stated that it is “unconscionable” that minority and low-income neighborhoods bear a disproportionate burden of pollution and that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a potent tool for enforcement with the “potential to transform lives and strengthen communities.” He called on all Justice Department attorneys to “start thinking of environmental justice as a civil rights issue” and went on to say that “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—a father of our nation’s environmental justice movement—may have put it best when he declared that, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”

Echoing Holder’s comments, CEQ’s Sutley said that the Forum was the start of a dialogue across agencies to promote a healthy environment for all people, including traditionally underrepresented communities who are overburdened with environmental negatives. She noted that environmentally degraded communities not only fare worse on health issues, but that a poor environment can limit economic opportunities.

The forum also spotlighted several environmental justice initiatives that the Obama Administration has undertaken. For instance, the EPA, Department of Transportation, and Department of Housing and Urban Development have already collaborated in a Partnership for Sustainable Communities grant program to promote walkable, liveable, and healthy communities, by awarding grants to several communities and community groups around the country.  

The EPA’s senior advisor on environmental justice reported on Plan EJ2014, part of EPA’s initiative to expand the conversation on environmental justice. The goals of the Plan are to:

  • Protect health in communities over-burdened by pollution.
  • Empower communities to take action to improve their health and environment.
  • Establish partnerships with local, state, tribal, and federal organizations to achieve healthy and sustainable communities.

The White House emphasized its commitment to addressing climate change issues, with CEQ’s Sutley reiterating the White House’s commitment to ensuring that low-income communities are provided with the tools to cope with global warming, as it will hit them the hardest. For an in-depth look at the meaning of climate change and a green economy for low-income people and communities and key actions legal advocates can take in response, see the Shriver Center’s Clearinghouse Review, September-October 2010 Special Issue Climate Change and a Green Economy: New Advocacy Opportunities.

Responding to questions regarding sustainable communities, Sutley noted that the Department of Agriculture, Department of Health andHuman Services, and First Lady Michelle Obama have cooperated to created “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” a locally grown food initiative. Sutley also noted that President recently signed legislation reauthorizing the nation’s child nutrition programs; the law promotes healthy eating at home and in schools, gardens, and locally grown food sources. And she mentioned the America’s Great Outdoor Initiative, which is spearheaded by the Department of Interior and aims create and preserve green spaces in communities around the country.

A video recording of the White House Forum on Environmental Justice is available on YouTube (Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV). Readers can also see a video of the live chat session held after the forum, “Open for Questions: Environmental Justice.”


Kathleen Donahue McNally coauthored this article.


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