EDGI invited two reviewers to provide feedback on drafts of this report. The report was then revised, as outlined in orange below, based on their feedback.
Reviewer: Dr. Jill Harrison
Jill Harrison is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her research focuses on environmental sociology, sociology of agriculture and food systems, environmental justice, political theories of justice, and immigration politics. She has used her research on political conflict over agricultural pesticide poisonings in California, recent escalations in immigration enforcement in rural Wisconsin, and government agencies environmental justice efforts to identify and explain the persistence of environmental inequalities and workplace inequalities. She published the award-winning Pesticide Drift and the Pursuit of Environmental Justice(2011) with MIT Press.
I appreciate this opportunity to read and comment on the EDGI report, “Pursuing a Toxic Agenda: Environmental Justice in the First 100 Days.” This report is important, as it uniquely addresses how the Trump Administration is undermining not just the EPA in general – as journalists have rightly criticized – but also environmental inequalities in particular, to which the press has devoted very little attention. The content is well substantiated, and clearly a lot of work went into preparing this report.
- Clarify whether your concern is with how the Trump Administration is undermining “EPA’s EJ agenda” or environmental inequalities in general. The former is pretty thin – indeed, with all due respect to the agency’s EJ efforts to date, most EJ advocates would say that EPA has very little “EJ agenda” – whereas the latter is more substantial a concern and honors things EPA’s EJ efforts have and have not addressed. This question came to me first when reading this sentence on p. 2: “the EPA’s environmental justice agenda in Flint and elsewhere is in serious jeopardy”.
This excellent suggestion from Dr. Harrison, we refocused the report to detail how the Trump administration’s actions are poised to extend already palpable and serious environmental injustices. We emphasize that the environmental justice mandate for the EPA and other federal agencies put into place by executive order 12898 in 1992 has remained a largely “unfulfilled promise” in the section “What is Environmental Justice?”. However, we emphasize in that section – and throughout the report – that the relatively small gains made towards meaningfully acknowledging environmental inequality over the years have been hampered by the incoming administration’s actions. These include placing politically vulnerable communities in closer proximity to health and environmental risks, weakening environmental protections at the federal level for communities and curtailing the federal data infrastructure that would allow communities to bring forward new instances and address old instances of environmental inequality.
Instead of making a contemporary example of the Flint Water Crisis, the report now engages with the recent destruction Hurricane Harvey unleashed on Houston to show that environmental inequality has been a persistent issue that will cause starker divides as the new administration has already taken several steps to undermine environmental justice protections not only in Houston, but across the country.
- Foreground throughout that your concern is with environmental inequalities – i.e., the environmental hazards disproportionately harming marginalized communities. At times, the report’s discussions of toxics and data do not specifically attend to inequality and social vulnerability.
This point was well-taken and as a result we strengthened our focus on environmental inequalities experienced by communities. We fleshed out each executive action we discuss to include ways in which the now-imperiled rules, programs and datasets are intended to – or actually do– help communities address issues of environmental injustice. In each of these, we highlight the struggles communities have faced in the course of these battles for health and environmental equality, illustrating that even in previous times, even modest gains around environmental justice have been hard-won. In the conclusion we offer ways in which different organizations, institutions, civil rights groups and local governments can more meaningfully work towards addressing and remedying environmental inequities.
The following points were all addressed in a comprehensive re-write and copyedit. The page numbers indicated here no longer correlate to the same issues in the current document. Appendices mentioned here were removed.
- pp. 1-2: emphasis on “infrastructure” = awkward, especially “regulatory infrastructure”.
- P. 2: These statements are unclear, and I think you want to make them very precisely: “Trump’s May 2017 proposed budget would completely cut the Office of Environmental Justice responsible to overseeing this agenda. More than this, grassroots environmental justice projects [organizations?] must now confront a more hostile federal government.” I also suggest you adjust the language slightly to foreground EJ (rather than harmful pollutants in general).
- P. 2 Under “What is Environmental Justice?”: I suggest starting with the fact that the concept came from the EJ movement (i.e., the material on the second para on p. 3) rather than being an EPA concept. I also suggest stating more clearly in your own words what EJ groups contest about EPA’s definition – using a direct quote is distracting, and the language there is too dense for the lay reader.
- p. 2: Your roadmap para should mirror the organization of material within the document and more explicitly guide your reader.
- p. 3: I am confused by this sentence: “EJ work relating to toxics is at the core of the environmental movement and of social movements8 such as those around labor9, development10, transportation11 and food availability.” Marginalized communities’ toxic exposures are not the core concern of the environmental movement, so clarify your point here.
- p. 4: The activists in Warren County weren’t protesting “against illegal PCB dumping” per se, but rather the (legal) siting of a toxic waste dump (for PCB-contaminated soil) in their community.
- p. 4: Define “OEJ” the first time you use it.
- p. 5: I’m not sure what you mean by “the local level”. Also, I think you could elevate here in this paragraph that the OEJ led these efforts.
- p. 5 large para: This is a jumble of efforts; I suggest you organize this more coherently. You could also expand this to describe more fully the federal agencies’ EJ efforts. Also clarify that some of these (such as CARE) are competitive grant programs through which EPA provides funding to non-profit organizations – the current wording makes it sound like EPA works hand-in-glove with those organizations (e.g., “Today the OEJ assists in the work of non-governmental organizations”); this language is not quite accurate and also will raise the ire of actors hostile to the EPA.
- pp. 5-6: This para is misplaced among paragraphs that are otherwise describing federal EJ efforts.
- p. 6: I don’t follow this sentence: “The incorporation of civil rights arguments with environmental contamination has been useful to communities – they no longer have to prove they are sick or necessarily harmed – only that they are presented with inequitable risks.”
- p. 7: I think this material belongs in subsequent sections, not here in this section.
- p. 7: This sentence is confusing: “Second, as the “two out one in” executive order (EO 13771) and “enforcing the regulatory reform agenda” (EO 13777) place consideration for the cost of introducing and enforcing regulations above science-based claims on health and well-being, these orders can be seen as grounds for dismantling costly toxics and clean water and air regulations the administration sees as inconvenient to industry.”
- Where the report critiques the limitations of EPA’s EJ efforts to date, I suggest you cite some recent scholarship on this – I am attaching recent articles of mine, and you can see other relevant citations in the literature reviews (especially note the Konisky edited volume).
- p. 8: Your intro paragraph here includes too much detail. Also, it needs to include a reference to the “Placing Workers at Risk” subsection.
- p. 8: I suggest you avoid the terms “fracking” and “fracked” and instead us “hydraulic fracturing” (so as to alienate fewer readers).
- p. 10: Add that EPA’s ban on chlorpyrifos was prompted by a court decision stemming from EJ organization lawsuits. Also, farmworkers in the U.S. are predominantly from Mexico, with a growing minority from Central America (so you could say, “Mexico and Central America”).
- p. 12 top: Actually, nearly all farmworkers in the U.S. are immigrants of color.
- P. 13: “because inequitable risk to systematically disadvantaged communities must be proven…” to do what? (Just clarify the point here about why such data are important.)
- P. 13: Unpack what you mean by “make longitudinal arguments about environmental injustice” to make this sentence accessible to more readers.
- Pp. 13-14: Note what kinds of data the ATSDR can provide.
- P. 15: The focus here on hexavalent chromium feels distracting, given that IRIS includes data and standards for many contaminants.
- P. 15: Which other HHRA programs are at risk with these budget cuts?
- P. 15: The offhand reference to the SAB feels too short and unclear. And might there be a way to rephrase the following sentence to clarify why so many members left?: “EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), which has let go of half of its scientists under the current administration.” I think it might leave the reader wondering what the role of the Trump Administration is in the downsizing of the SAB (aside from not appointing new members, which is certainly relevant).
- Pp. 13-15: This is one of those sections that should be tied more squarely to EJ. (The section later on lead-based paint does this well.)
- P. 16 top full para: Revise this roadmap para to align with the organization of content that follows.
- P. 16: For these (and other) budget cut figures, also state what these amount to in terms of the percent of the budget (so we can get a sense of the scale of these cuts).
- P. 17: Second sentence under “Reducing Funding for the Superfund Program” is confusingly written.
- P. 18: I wonder if this statement could be made more strongly: “as many of the sites heavily affected by hazardous waste crises and heavily serviced through Superfund aid are in low income communities of color”. Have studies found that Superfund sites are disproportionately located in low-income communities, tribal areas, and/or communities of color? … Also, the example (examples?) in this paragraph is/are distracting and confusing.
- Paragraph on pp. 18-19 is confusingly written. Clarify.
- P. 19: Lisa Jackson was the first EPA Administrator under Obama.
- P. 19: This quote does not feel very effective to me: “we were starting down this path with some tools around citizens in science and technology...acknowledging that technology has come such a long way and that everyone can have a role if they want to in...developing data...and trying to interpret data about the environment.” I suggest you instead summarize her point – and clarify why citizen participation in science is valuable – and then use the subsequent quote, which is more powerful. Also, was this a former or current employee? If former, note that – to help protect current staff.
- P. 20 first full para: This is incomplete and unclear, and its hypothetical/conceptual character strays from this section’s focus on resistance. Also, the introduction of these concepts (citizen science and civic science) at this late stage in the report is distracting and unnecessary. I think you could make your point more briefly and without the jargon – and in which you foreground the element of resistance.
- P. 21 top full para: This is confusing. Explain more clearly.
- I’m not sure about the Appendices. Are they necessary? They are very long, and their value isn’t clear to me. The clarifying information about EO 13371 and RMP rule should be streamlined and then moved up and into the text where they are discussed. The other information, while interesting, does not seem essential.
- Finally: I suggest you use the Oxford comma, as it helps clarify meaning.
Reviewer: Dr. Ellen Kohl
Dr. Ellen Kohl is Assistant Professor of Environmental Sciences at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Dr. Kohl examines how compounding socio- spatial processes, developed and perpetuated by urban and environmental policies, contribute to places of persistent injustice in the United States. She is particularly interested in how these processes impact marginalized communities and the social movement strategies these communities employ to create positive change in their communities.
Overall, this paper presented an interesting and compelling engagement with the changes to EPA’s approach to environmental justice under the Trump administration. The authors did a good job of surveying a wide array of actions by the Trump administration to capture the scope of the impacts of a Pruitt EPA for environmental justice communities. Below are recommendations to strengthen the paper.
- First, throughout the paper, the overall tone towards EPA's previous approaches to environmental justice are laudatory, especially during the Obama administration. While it is important to highlight the accomplishments of EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, a more critical engagement with what the office has not accomplished is equally important – specifically in their failure to address environmental justice concerns using Title VI complaints and legal challenges using the 14th amendment (see Koinsky 2015). It is tricky to critique an agency that is under attack that you are fighting to save, but the complexity of the argument comes alive by engaging with both aspects simultaneously. Additionally, highlighting the limitations of the previous governance structure provides the opportunity to think creatively about how to resist environmental injustice under Trump. A critical approach also opens up space to think through alternative approaches to contest issues of environmental injustices that might not have otherwise been considered.
We took this suggestion seriously and re-framed the entire report to focus on the EPA’s largely unfulfilled promise regarding environmental justice in the nearly 25 years since the Office of Environmental Justice was established. We cited Konisky’s 2015 piece along with the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights 2016 report to highlight that the OEJ had a backlog of nearly 300 unaddressed Title VI complaints. This, along with the ongoing EPA budget issues specifically related to environmental justice, such as the hazardous substances superfund account, allows us to argue that even with the modest gains made in the Obama administration, there are still serious, long-standing problems that should be addressed through more funding and more attention to EJ at the federal level to make real steps towards ameliorating environmental injustices. This critical stance enables us to more compellingly demonstrate how the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts for the EPA and various orders set by Trump himself and EPA administrator Scott Pruitt are poised to further extend environmental injustice.
- Second, and closely related, I would recommend a more robust engagement with critiques of data in the regulation of environmental justice at EPA, ATSDR, CDC, and other federal agencies. As I stated above, it is not productive to ignore the problems with the systems and processes that were in existence before the Trump administration’s tenure otherwise we risk trying to save processes and systems that do not actually change the material realities for environmental justice communities. As Holifield (2004) argues, by focusing on data analysis and GIS EPA attempts to normalize environmental justice communities, and in doing so remedial practitioners become agents to deliver neoliberal policies. The reliance on neoliberal strategies can act as a method for neutralizing the concerns of communities, so they turn to technocratic solutions, rather political mobilization (Spence 2012). By integrating a critique alongside the importance of publically available data the nuanced challenge of resistance emerges.
We added the entire section on the Toxics Release Index (TRI) following this suggestion, and use it as a case to show that while the TRI was seen as an important step in providing data to the public through the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-know Act (EPCRA) so that communities can mobilize data to hold industry accountable, the TRI is extremely flawed because it is self reported by industry, and reporting standards change yearly. Sections on the ATSDR and CDC were cut in favor of addressing the TRI.
In the section on environmental data justice we highlight the government’s uncritical use of data self reported by industry in making policy, but rarely acknowledge community science and citizen gathered data as valid enough to be considered in policy development. This section also suggests ways to collect, use and manage data as a productive tool for environmental justice that takes seriously the fact that data can be a technocratic tool for neoliberal governance that puts the onus on communities to protect themselves.
- Third, the paper would benefit from the addition of a section on the proposed elimination of the Office of EJ. Even though the paper is focused on toxins, this is an important enough action by the Trump administration to include in the paper.
We highlight the proposed elimination of the office of environmental justice in the introduction on page 6. The section “What is Environmental Justice?” tells the story of how the OEJ came to be and why it is important in the efforts to combat disproportionate health and environmental risk being placed on politically vulnerable communities at the end of that section, we emphasize what elimination of the OEJ is emblematic for the reversals of community protection under Trump. To drive this point home, we include an interview with Mustafa Ali former head of the EPA’s OEJ to emphasize the importance of the changes for the OEJ both in regard to budget cuts and his suggestions for what should be done at the federal level to protect the environmental justice mandate.
- Finally, I would encourage the authors to engage more deeply with the possibilities that arise in the resistance to environmental injustice under Trump’s administration. You all begin to do this in the last paragraph of the paper – but by engaging more fully with the critiques of the EPA’s approach to environmental justice and data under the Obama administration, more creative and potentially transformative solutions may arise.
As mentioned above, we changed the focus of the report to underscore that EJ at the federal level has been a largely unfulfilled promise and that under the Trump administration, it appears as though it will be even more severely diminished. We expanded the conclusion to include suggestions to combat the systematic chipping away of protections for communities by offering ways of thinking how to resist this at federal levels, at local, state and regional levels and finally we advance the concept of Environmental Data Justice which takes into consideration that they ways disproportionate risk to communities is documented to influence policy happens at the level of data. As this is true we suggest organizations interrogate the political nature of the data that is gathered, stored, used and accepted in policy and decision-making and attempt to meaningfully include communities in the process of data to ensure more equitable and just forms of environmental data practices.
Holifield, Ryan. 2004. Neoliberalism and environmental justice in the United States environmental protection agency: Translating policy into managerial practice in hazardous waste remediation. Geoforum 35 (3), 285-297.
Konisky, David. ed. 2015. Failed Promises: Evaluating the Federal Government’s Response to Environmental Justice, MIT Press
Spence, Lester K. 2012. The neoliberal turn in Black politics. Souls 14 (3-4), 139-159
Konisky is now cited in the report. We reviewed the Holifield and Spence but did not draw significantly from them at this time.