Environmental Justice Takes Center Stage at White House

whitehouse More than 100 environmental justice leaders, five Cabinet secretaries and senior officials from a wide range of federal agencies and offices participated in the first ever White House Forum on Environmental Justice on December 14 in Washington, DC. The event was convened to illustrate the Obama administration’s commitment to ensuring all Americans have strong federal protection from environmental and health hazards.

The meeting, although not attended by President Obama himself, was attended by several cabinet members including EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.

"For decades, our nation’s environmental problems and threats have been heaped disproportionately on America’s most vulnerable communities," said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. "This is unacceptable, and it is unconscionable. But through the aggressive enforcement of federal environmental laws in every community, I believe we can and must change the status quo and ensure environmental justice for all Americans,” said Holder, whose department is often the one left holding the bag as environmental justice cases drag on in the court system.  

The forum highlighted initiatives underway across the federal government that affect environmental justice communities. And it was also billed as an opportunity for environmental justice and community leaders and officials from state, local and tribal governments to engage in a conversation with administration officials.

But not all of the idea sharing and communication from leaders in the environmental justice community took place in the context of the official meeting.

According to a report at Greenwire by John McArdle and Gabriel Nelson, when event officials cut off a question-and-answer session on green jobs to let Attorney General Holder take the stage, Suzie Canales, a cafeteria worker from Corpus Christi, Texas, and co-founder of the advocacy group Citizens for Environmental Justice, felt a little slighted. So she spoke up -- a move that ultimately earned her a one-on-one with EPA Administrator Jackson.

"I did not come here to be talked to. I came here because I thought I was going be able to voice concerns," Canales said as she stood at the front of the auditorium. "The Plan EJ 2014 -- these are bureaucratic words on paper. They do nothing for these communities."

Plan EJ 2014 is an Obama Administration strategy headed up by EPA’s Jackson to give higher priority and coordination to addressing environmental justice issues.

A few minutes after the outburst, an EPA aide approached Canales in the auditorium and offered her the opportunity for an impromptu meeting with Administrator Jackson in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Canales took that opportunity and gave Jackson a piece of her mind as the two sat and talked on a couch.

"The government has done nothing," Canales told Jackson.

When Jackson asked Canales specifically what they could do, Canales replied: "We need to stop being studied to death. What I'm saying to you is that with all these powerful agencies ... instead of giving us more documents that have no value to us, you need to roll up your sleeves."

At one point in the conversation, the volume of Canales’ emotional words spurred an EPA aide to enter the room and ask her if she would lower her voice as it could be heard in the auditorium next door during Attorney General Holder’s presentation.

Wednesday’s meeting at the White House was indeed rare, although it was not the first time in recent memory that high level environmental justice talks have taken place at the White House. In September, EPA Administrator Jackson and Chair Nancy Sutley reconvened the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice there for the first time in more than a decade.

And while many in attendance applauded the Obama administration for doing more than most previous administrations, since environmental justice was first addressed by the executive office in the 1990s, frustration was still evident.

Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, called the forum historic.

"But making history is not enough," Bullard told Greenwire. "The most important piece is what happens after this."

Tim Hurst is the executive editor of the LiveOAK network where he writes about the politics of climate change, sustainable business and the environmental movement. Follow him on twitter.

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  • Posted on Dec. 21, 2010. Listed in:

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