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Real Progress on Environmental Justice

Federal agencies are taking important steps to incorporate environmental justice into their decision-making to ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to live in safe, healthy communities.

All Americans deserve to have clean air to breathe, safe water to drink, and healthy communities in which to raise their families. These things are an essential part of what it means to live in America.

But too often, America’s low-income and minority communities bear the brunt of the nation’s pollution. That also means that these communities are disproportionately affected by the many serious – and costly – illnesses that are linked to pollution, and that they are less attractive to the businesses and investments that help create thriving neighborhoods. And unfortunately, these groups often have little say in the decision-making process that can fix these inequities.

The Obama Administration is working to address these disparities. As part of an initiative led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), Americans across the country are benefiting from new approaches by Federal agencies to ensure healthy, thriving communities. 

In new annual reports, agencies show the steps they  have taken to ensure they are meeting environmental justice goals, including engaging overburdened communities early and often in decision-making, integrating environmental justice into grant application processes and agency programs, and improving the tools and methods used to identify and address concerns. This work impacts areas ranging from education and labor to health services, housing, and more.  For example:

  • The Department of Veterans Affairs is helping to provide green jobs and workforce development opportunities for veterans in low-income communities.
  • The Department of Labor is now translating educational materials and hazard alerts into Spanish, Chinese, and Vietnamese for non-English speaking workers.
  • The Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is using Health Impact Assessments to proactively address the potential impacts a policy or project may have on overburdened populations’ health.
  • The Department of Education awarded $35 million in Promise Neighborhoods grants to create safe and healthy spaces for children and improve the educational and developmental outcomes of youth in distressed neighborhoods. 
  • The Department of the Interior, building on the America’s Great Outdoors Presidential Initiative, is studying the Federal Government’s urban assets and developing ways to promote work opportunities on public lands in urban areas.
  • The Department of Agriculture worked with American Indian, Native Alaskan, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities and intertribal organizations to meet information needs for protecting their communities from the impacts of climate change, including working with individual tribes on place-based responses to climate change that serve as models for future efforts. 

Moreover, inter-agency collaboration is setting the foundation for even more progress. The Administration has reinvigorated the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice, and hosted the first-ever White House Forum on Environmental Justice to engage stakeholders from across the country. In addition, Federal agencies, working together, have released an Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Asthma Disparities and helped communities nationwide improve access to affordable housing, provide more transportation options, lower transportation costs, and reduce pollution through the Partnership for Sustainable Communities.

We are making great progress, but there is still much work to do. Across the Federal Government, we are committed to better serving communities burdened by harmful pollution, engaging these communities as we work to address environmental issues, and ensuring environmental justice is part of Federal decision-making for the benefit of all Americans. 

Nancy Sutley is Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality
Bob Perciasepe is the Acting Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency