Comments by Robert D. Bullard at EPA Title VI Civil Rights Listening Session Houston – January 12, 2016

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EPA Title VI Civil Rights Houston Listening Session2016

Good afternoon. My name is Dr. Robert D. Bullard and I am Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University. Welcome, you are in my building. First of all, I want to thank the EPA and its staff for holding this listening session in Houston and allowing the public to speak to on an important issue of Title VI Civil Rights enforcement.  We are pleased that EPA has committed to undertake this long overdue rulemaking. We urge the agency to use its authority and power to ensure equal protection and root out racial discrimination wherever it is found.

It is significant that this hearing is being held on the campus of Texas Southern University in the school names for two Black icon of civil rights—Barbara Jordan and Mickey Leland. It is also the university where in 1979 I along with ten of my graduate students in the Department of Sociology conducted the “Solid Waste and the Houston Black Community” study in support of the nation’s first environmental discrimination lawsuit—Bean v Southwestern Waste Management Corp. This year will mark the 35th anniversary of the Bean case.

It is from this campus in the early 1980s that we launched a national research and policy initiative through articles, reports, monographs, and books—that shone the spotlight on the various forms of environmental racism, discrimination, unequal protection, and disparate treatment of African Americans and other people of color in the South. Some of these books include, Invisible Houston (1987), Dumping in Dixie (1990); Confronting Environmental Racism (1993); Residential Apartheid: The American Legacy (1994); Just Transportation: Dismantling Race and Class Barriers to Mobility (1997); Sprawl City (2000); Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World (2003), Highway Robbery: Transportation Racism and New Routes to Equity (South End Press, 2004);The Quest for Environmental Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of Pollution (2005), Growing Smarter: Achieving Livable Communities, Environmental Justice, and Regional Equity (2007); Race, Place and Environmental Justice After Hurricane Katrina: Struggles to Reclaim, Rebuild, and Revitalize New Orleans and the Gulf Coast (2009); Environmental Health and Racial Equality in the United States: Strategies for Building Just, Sustainable and Livable Communities (2011); and The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How the Government Response to Disaster Endangers African American Communities (2012).

And after more than three decades, we have learned communities of color and environmentally impacted communities still look to the federal EPA for equal protection and equal enforcement of civil rights—even though the agency’s track record on civil rights compliance and enforcement program over these many years has been a dismal failure.

Generally, communities of color do not trust or have confidence in their state regulatory agency to enforce civil rights and dispense equal protection for all without regard to race, color or national origin. And by default, the EPA is viewed by many environmentally impacted communities as the only game in town to get justice. EPA needs to deliver.

EPA can learn from the past and from other federal agencies.  For example, in an environmental justice case challenging an air permit for a first privately-owned uranium enrichment plant, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Atomic Safety and Licensing Board three-judge panel in the 1997 Citizens Against Trash Waste v Louisiana Energy Services  summed up what federal agency staff must do to uncover  environmental discrimination in facility siting (the NRC denied the permit):

“Racial discrimination in the facility site selection process cannot be uncovered with only a cursory review of the description of that process appearing in an applicant’s environmental report. If it were so easily detected, racial discrimination would not be such a persistent and enduring problem in American society. Racial discrimination is rarely, if ever, admitted. Instead, it is often rationalized under some other seemingly racially neutral guise, making it difficult to ferret out. … [T]he Staff must conduct an objective, thorough, and professional investigation that looks beneath the surface of the description of the site selection process in the Environmental Report. In other words, the Staff must lift some rocks and look under them.”

I served as an expert witness on this case. This case is significant in that the NRC denied the permit.  It was also one of the first environmental justice victories coming three years after the signing of the Environmental Justice Executive Order in 1994.

I have seen and written about environmental racism up close and personal from Wake County, NC to Seattle, WA. Much of this work, though not exclusively, has focused on the South, states of the Old Confederacy—states that resisted civil rights with a vengeance. I have visited Uniontown, Alabama where toxic coal ash cleaned up from a TVA power plant spill in mostly white Roane County, TN was shipped by rail 300 miles south to the mostly black Perry County—in the heart of the Alabama Blackbelt. EPA in 2008 stood on the sidelines while this racial injustice unfolded. EPA, this is not equal protection. Residents of Perry County deserve better from the federal government.

I have researched cases of garbage and toxic waste dumped in landfills in African American communities Athens, GA (Dunlop Road community), Chapel Hill, NC (Rogers Road-Eubanks Road community), and in Dickson, TN (Eno Road community). The treatment of black families in Dickson (by city, county, state and federal government officials and private industry) whose wells were poisoned with TCE from a city/county-owned landfill is the “poster child” of environmental racism. While government officials took proactive measures to protect white families in Dickson whose well water was contaminated, black families were allowed to drink TCE-contaminated water for more than a decade. Much of America simply has the “wrong complexion for equal protection.” These cases are not isolated “accidents” or incidents of random dumping. EPA needs to step up and provide equal protection of all Americans.

I have worked with residents in Louisiana, Alabama and Florida where the lion’s share of oil-waste cleaned up from the BP Deepwater Horizon spill was trucked to landfills in black communities—until we raised environmental justice and civil rights complaints with EPA and the Unified Command.

Today, zip code is still the best predictor of health. It is also a powerful predictor of who gets dumped on. All zip codes are not created equal. On average, affluent blacks and Hispanics live in neighborhoods with fewer resources than poor whites do. In the environmental world, Black lives, Black health and Black communities have not mattered. Blacks who make $50,000 to $60,000 a year live in more polluted neighborhoods than whites who make only $10,000 a year. Blacks are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution poses the greatest health risk.

The EPA should not allow any family and especially innocent children to be overburdened with pollution and their neighborhoods to become toxic “sacrifice zones.” Numerous studies, including some of my own, have documented that people of color in the United States are disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards in their homes, schools, neighborhoods, and workplace. Much of what is happening in these environmental “sacrifice zones” is racism and racial discrimination.

EPA should not hide behind “scientific complexity” as an excuse for not acting—and acting forcibly to root out environmental discrimination and punish the perpetrators. Clearly, the act of cleaning up toxic waste in white communities and dumping it in black communities is not “scientifically complex.” It’s simple, not complex—and it’s called racial discrimination. The act of targeting locally unwanted land uses (LULUs) and environmentally polluting facilities in communities of color has little to do with the science of toxicology, epidemiology, hydrology or geology—but has more to do with political science and sociology.

It is incredible that in 45 years, EPA never met a case of environmental discrimination—not even in the southern region of the country (EPA Regions 4 and 6)—where this listening session is being held and in a region that was notorious for practicing discrimination under “Jim Crow” segregation and even today under racially-charged decision-making that allows entire communities to be poisoned, where highways and bridges are allowed to displace and destroy neighborhoods, and where government response to disaster and recovery is predicted by race and the color of one’s your skin.

One need not be a rocket scientist (or EPA scientist) to understand dumping pollution on communities of color with persistent health disparities can only make matters worse. Studies show residents in these communities are exposed to higher levels of pollution than the rest of the nation and experience certain diseases in greater number. Residents who live on the fence-line with polluting industries are paying a high price in the form of higher medical bills and missed school and work days, and loss wages.

Conclusions and Recommendations

After two decades of EPA Title VI action or inaction, there is not a lot to show and not a lot of trust. Federal and state government agencies have been equally bad on Title VI compliance and enforcement. Civil rights compliance and enforcement has been non-existent around the nation in the environmental arena. This has been the case under Republicans and under Democrats.

Not much has changed since I wrote Dumping in Dixie in 1990—25 years ago chronicling environmental racism in the South. A 2015 audit from the Center for Public Integrity reports EPA dismissed 95 percent of all community complaints alleging discrimination without providing any remedy. Over the past two decades, EPA has yet to find a case of discrimination. Although it has the power and authority to do so, EPA has never cut off or withdrawn funds from a recipient or sub-recipient of federal funds for discrimination.

  1. EPA needs to strengthen, not weaken its Title VI standards.
  2. EPA should not eliminate the time limit for making decisions whether to accept a complaint for investigation. Time limit should be no more than 45 days.
  3. EPA should not eliminate the time limit for completing investigations of complaints. All complaint investigations should be completed within one year.
  4. EPA needs to come up with legal standards and guidance for determining discrimination under Title VI.
  5. EPA should require all applicants for EPA financial assistance demonstrate that it has and is implementing an effective/verifiable Title VI compliance program.
  6. EPA should target resources to Title VI “hot spots” and ensure sufficient resources are available to conduct regular periodic post-award compliance reviews of every financial assistance recipient that is a state, regional or local agency responsible for environmental regulation.

Finally, while most zoning is local, EPA must use its power and authority to uncover and root out discriminatory and exclusionary zoning practices used by recipients of federal funds. EPA’s “look-the-other-way” position has got us where we are today—a big mess.  It’s time to clean up this mess. And the time is right now. Thank you!

Author: Dr. Robert Bullard

Dr. Bullard is the lead author and principal investigator on several new book projects and research undertakings that address environmental health, energy, transportation, climate justice, and racial equity.

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