Environmental Justice

THE Clinton administration has joined a call for ``environmental justice'' that activists have voiced for years. One recent sign: On Monday the New England regional administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency announced a plan to increase inspections in disadvantaged areas and channel money from environmental fines to community development projects to combat ``environmental racism.''

``Environmental racism'' refers to the injustice that many think underlies the disproportionate burden of environmental harm borne by racial minorities in the United States.

The term has not gone unchallenged. While some studies note that about three out of five blacks and Latinos live in areas with one or more hazardous-waste sites, others are not ready to attribute such correlations to racism. Nevertheless, the director of the EPA's Office of Environmental Justice argues that the label ``environmental racism'' is justified, as is ``classism,'' since low-income communities are vulnerable.

The two reinforce each other. In some cases, poor minority neighborhoods have developed among preexisting urban industrial sites that either handled or generated toxic wastes. In other cases, cleanup efforts appear to be more aggressively pursued in white areas while sites for waste-treatment facilities appear to be targeted at minority areas.

While siting decisions often are justified on economic grounds, they sometimes carry an air of exploitation. In 1984, for example, consultants advised the California Waste Management Board to site waste-to-energy incinerators in low-income areas, since less resistance was expected from politically and economically disempowered groups. In many cases where minority neighborhoods have been targeted, hearings were not well publicized or were held in English where most residents spoke Spanish or an American Indian language.

The Clinton administration is right to begin addressing these problems now. Using the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the EPA is investigating several cases in which proposed sitings appear to be racially biased and to deprive residents of equal access to a safe environment. An executive order signed by President Clinton Feb. 11 asks all federal agencies with health or environment responsibilities to make sure their policies are fair. For example, current standards for safe levels of exposure to potentially harmful chemicals may be reconsidered; rather than continue to use a middle-class white male model as a measure, effects on low-income and minority groups would be taken into account.

As more people join the chorus of ``Not in my backyard,'' the country must reduce, not simply shift, environmental hazards.

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