Pruitt makes his mark on environmental justice

Source: Kevin Bogardus, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Environmental justice is getting a twist at U.S. EPA, looking to incorporate some of the themes emphasized by Administrator Scott Pruitt.

Samantha Dravis, Pruitt’s top policy aide, penned a memo dated this past Friday outlining EPA’s priorities for the environmental justice program. The document lists a dozen goals guided by Pruitt’s refrains of “core mission,” “cooperative federalism” and “rule of law.”

Dravis said in her memo that the agency’s dedication to environmental justice “remains strong” and is committed to ensure that “all Americans see the full benefit of environmental protection and have a voice in our work and decisions.”

“This is as true today — with Administrator Pruitt’s emphasis on cleaning up Superfund sites and aggressively attacking exposure to lead,” Dravis said, as when President Clinton signed an executive order in 1994 to have all federal agencies address environmental justice concerns.

Dravis also noted the move of EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice into its Office of Policy, which she leads. That reorganization has attracted criticism from former EPA officials who question the Trump administration’s belief in the movement (Climatewire, Sept. 6, 2017).

In her memo, Dravis called the move “a reaffirmation” of Pruitt’s commitment to EPA’s environmental justice program.

“Elevating OEJ into OP will strengthen and complement our EJ work with the activities of many other offices, enabling EPA to provide better support to communities as we work to improve health, protect the environment and grow local economies for all people,” Dravis said.

EPA’s focus on environmental justice comes as its own scientists show how minorities and those in poverty are more likely to deal with harmful air pollution. A study published last week by EPA researchers found that “non-whites and those living in poverty face a disproportionate burden from [particulate-matter]-emitting facilities” (Greenwire, Feb. 26).

In her memo, Dravis outlines several steps for the environmental justice program, including achieving “measurable environmental outcomes” for underserved communities on reducing exposure to lead, waste contamination and air pollution, as well as ensuring safe drinking water. In addition, the agency has requested that members of its National Environmental Justice Advisory Council bring their regional concerns to Pruitt’s attention for their first in-person meeting in 2018.

EPA’s policy office also will launch in the next month “a convening of senior leadership” under the Environmental Justice and Community Revitalization Council, rebranded from the National Environmental Justice Council. EPA’s top officials will discuss how the agency’s priorities for the program will align with its new strategic plan.

“We have cemented EJ as not just an ideal to be achieved. It is a deeply rooted commitment that helps us better achieve our mission to protect the environment and public health through collaboration, cooperative federalism and meaningful engagement,” Dravis said.

Pruitt has shown an interest in environmental justice, having met with NEJAC members this past December. He also credited the work of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. for providing “the roots for the environmental justice movement, ensuring the rights to a clean and healthy environment for all of our citizens” in an internal email to staff (E&E News PM, Jan. 16).

The Trump administration’s first budget proposal, however, sought to eliminate EPA’s environmental justice office, proposing zero funds for the program in fiscal 2018.

In fiscal 2019, instead of ending the office, Trump requested $2 million for the environmental justice program. That money would be used to fund its small grants, technical assistance and its EJSCREEN tool, which maps where environmental dangers are in one’s community, all now housed within the policy shop.

Still, even with those funds proposed to be added back in, critics of the Trump administration say it is not enough for the environmental justice program. An analysis by the Environmental Protection Network, made up of former federal and state environmental officials, said the program along with other EPA initiatives “are now proposed for such drastic cuts that they are virtually eliminated.”

Fiscal 2018 funding has still not been approved by Congress, but House and Senate appropriations bills for this fiscal year would send more money to EPA’s environmental justice program — more than $5.7 million in the House legislation while nearly $6.1 million in the Senate version.