White House Hosts Environmental Forum

Last Wednesday, December 15, marked a historic day as the White House hosted the first-ever Environmental Justice Forum.  Major cabinet members along with environmental leaders from across the country met to discuss improving the “health and environmental integrity of the nation’s often-neglected poorer communities.” The summit began at 10 am (EST) with live streaming offered via the internet.  The daylong Environmental Justice Forum agenda specified six sessions starting with green jobs and concluding with climate adaptation.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency held the forum just a week after the conclusion of the Cancun Climate Conference 2010.  The Eisenhower Executive Office, next to the White House, acted as host site for the summit.  The event saw environmental leaders, officials from state, local, and tribal governments, along with feature heads of eight federal U.S. agencies in attendance.  Noted speakers included Nancy Sutley, Chair, White House Council on Environmental Quality; Lisa P. Jackson, Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Ken Salazar, Secretary, U.S. Department of Interior; Eric Holder, Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice; Hilda Solis, Secretary, U.S. Department of Labor; Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; and Janet Napolitano, Secretary, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.   Steven Chu, Secretary, U.S. Department of Energy was also slated to speak, but called in sick.   

Environmental justice was a concept formed in the 1980s in response to citizens of poorer communities voicing environmental discrimination (evolving into the term environmental racism).  Lack of political and economical power, combined with lack of environmental awareness, prevented poorer areas from benefiting from environmental regulations.  The lack of environmental regulation lead to practices such as toxic dumping, municipal waste facility, and poor land use decisions which negatively affected less affluent communities.  Championed primarily by minority races, environmental justice began as a grassroots activism eventually changing legislation’s actions by allowing communities to be informed about developments in their area.

Actions in the 1980s gave way to the Environmental Justice Movement, but the development of such a movement is believed to have origins as early as the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and the Environmental Movement in the 1960s and 1970s.  The Movements are considered stepping stones for the concept of Environmental Justice because of “environmental threats from hazardous wastes and other toxic chemicals in their communities, low-income communities of color emerged as strong activists against what they viewed as environmental attacks on their civil rights.”

The Environmental Justice Movement may loosely have roots to the Civil Rights and Environmental Movements, but Warren County, North Carolina is recognized as the Environmental Justice birthplace.  In 1982, Warren County, a community with 69 percent non-white citizens, was selected by the state as a chemical landfill site.  A month long protest proved unsuccessful at preventing the landfill from developing.  However, national civil rights leaders and environmentalists took notice.  During this time, then United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ) director and protest participant, Dr. Benjamin Chavis, coined the term environmental racism.  The Warren County event also acted as motivation for a CRJ study on correlations between race and toxic waste.  A 1987 report was published on the study citing large representations of toxic facilities in minority communities. 

In 1992, under the Bush Administration, environmental justice became the cornerstone for the Office of Environmental Justice within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Two years later, the Clinton Administration challenged federal agencies to become more aware of how their actions would negatively affect minority communities’ environment.  Unfortunately, the Office of Environmental Justice lost financial support during the second Bush Administration. 

President Obama hopes the Environmental Justice Forum will re-spark financial backing, keeping environmental discrimination from occurring.  The overall focus of the conference was on President’s Obama’s “commitment to ensuring that overburdened and low-income communities have the opportunity to enjoy the health and economic benefits of a clean environment.” 

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