U.S. Politics and the Economy

Communities Betrayed and Sick

The Environmental Protection Agency Office of Civil Rights under the spotlight

By Dr. Marsha Adebayo

The EPA Office of Civil Rights (OCR) is once again under the spotlight for betraying and harming communities that it was supposed to protect. The OCR is required to enforce Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. This Act prohibits recipients of federal funds from discriminating on the basis of race. Black, Brown and low-income communities turn to EPA’s OCR when local and state regulatory agencies permit landfills, refineries and other businesses to locate in their communities. Many of the pollutants and chemicals emitted from these facilities can trigger serious chronic health conditions, such as asthma, upper respiratory diseases and cancers.

EPA enjoys a generous budget of approximately $8 Billion dollars. African-Americans contribute a significant amount of funds to the work and mission of EPA through their tax dollars. However, despite the significant African-American financial contribution to EPA, the agency has never considered the health of African-Americans a priority nor worked to develop strategies to ensure that Black communities receive basic life-saving necessities, such as clean water or clean air. One only has to remember the deliberate government poisoning of Flint, Michigan, and EPA’s decision, according to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, not to respond to neuro-toxic levels of lead for over one year. EPA should not receive credit for its slothful attention and total disregard for the health of the Black population in Flint. History should record that it was the Flint community that forced the Agency through demonstrations, a media campaign and international headlines to provide what meager assistance it renders to Flint’s children.

When communities file a complaint under Title 6, EPA is supposed to decide within 20 days whether to investigate. Many of the complaints involve life threatening environmental conditions and should be handled accordingly. In addition, the Office of Civil Rights is supposed to issue a preliminary finding of the complaint within 180 days. The Agency, however, ignores its own deadlines and punishes EPA whistleblowers that shine light on these issues and provide advocacy on behalf of Black communities smothering under life-threatening pollution. The Agency intentionally drags its feet on providing a resolution to meeting the needs of these communities and instead of providing a preliminary finding within 180 days it generally takes approximately 350 days—about one year. According to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity, a number of investigations into Title 6 communities have taken years, not days. The Office has dismissed or rejected more than 90 percent of the complaints it has received and has never made a formal finding of discrimination. In other words, the Office of Civil Rights in over two decades has not found in favor of over 300 Title 6 complaints. Conversely, the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights has found in favor of businesses over the public health of Black and Brown communities 100 percent of the time. That is the reason, I wrote in No FEAR: A Whistleblowers Triumph over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA, that the Agency is actually a pro-corporate bureaucracy with a thin layer of green veneer on the outside.

In July, Earthjustice, an environmental law firm, sued the EPA for failing to finish investigations pending for more than a decade. Five communities were the subject of this lawsuit against the EPA—Alabama, Michigan, Texas, New Mexico and California. The Earthjustice lawsuit described EPA’s protocols towards Title 6 Black and Brown communities as a “pattern and practice of unreasonable delay.” These unconscionable delays have forced residents to live in unsafe environments around landfills and oil refineries, torn families and communities apart, exposed children to chronic and sometimes fatal diseases. The delays and refusal to choose the health of people over corporate profits rises to the level of criminality. But, no one expects that the Agency will be held accountable or even that EPA Office of Civil Rights staff will be fired whether under Democratic or Republic rule. The reality is that the staff in the Office of Civil Rights is following orders and are being rewarded through continued salary, on-going promotions and bonuses.

The Office of Civil Rights is located within the Office of the EPA Administrator. The Director of the Office of Civil Rights reports directly to the EPA Administrator. This is the smoke screen that is supposed to obfuscate and confuse the public. By titling this Office after the heroic struggle of the Civil Rights movement, evoking the struggles of Birmingham and Selma, the Office hopes to win the good will of Black and Brown communities. However, the Office of Civil Rights is simply carrying out the orders of the EPA Administrator. Whether the EPA is controlled by the Democratic or Republican Parties, the agency has had a consistent and negative impact on Black and Brown communities. 

The Office has no power outside of that bestowed by the EPA Administrator. It’s important for Black and Brown communities to understand that they are not in battle with a small independent office within EPA but rather the Administrator of the EPA and ultimately the White House. Thus, the Office of Civil Rights should be considered a buffer zone between communities of color and the Office of the Administrator. The Office insulates the Administrator and the White House from Black and Brown communities and provides “credible deniability” for the Administrator and the president on issues of race and injustice. At the end of the day, the major contribution of this office to the Agency is that it acts as a focal point for Title 6 communities to “let off steam” so that victims of environmental racism misdirect their anger thereby providing immunity to the Administrator’s Office or the occupant of the White House.

 These communities unfortunately enter the black hole of the Office of Civil Rights only to emerge 20 years later suffering from serious chronic illnesses, broken families, massive debt to attorneys and no hope of receiving justice.

The history of struggle in the U.S. has shown that communities are powerful when they build coalitions to press demands against powerful institutions, such as the EPA. This is the hope of Title 6 communities that their power will be redirected from the labyrinth of EPA to their own hands and they will develop the strategies of coalition building and solidarity with like-minded organizations to force corporations and government agencies clothed in stained green veneer to stand down.

Dr. Marsha Adebayo is the author of the Pulitzer Prize nominated: No FEAR: A Whistleblowers Triumph over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA. Her story as a federal government whistleblower is currently highlighted in an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.

—Black Agenda Report, January 3, 2017