The Injustice of Environmental Justice

Justice is usually defined as dealing fairly with others. But when federal officials talk about "environmental justice," the results can lead to injustice to the very people those officials purport to help.

In February 1994, President Clinton issued an executive order requiring all federal agencies (such as the Environmental Protection Agency) to achieve "environmental justice" by considering race in all government regulations, policies and programs. The term "environmental justice" was not well defined. In order to clarify the EPA’s position, the agency issued new guidelines for carrying out the executive order based on Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Act prevents anyone who accepts federal funds from taking any action that would have a disproportionate impact on minorities, even if that impact were not intentional. As a result, EPA now assumes the power to control the construction or expansion of any factory in America, even if the builder complies with all applicable environmental regulations and guidelines.

Unless it is overturned, EPA’s new power will have a significant impact on Michigan. If building or expanding a factory in Detroit or Flint or Lansing, for instance, is not allowed because it is located in an area with a higher-than-average minority population, then chances are the construction won’t happen there at all. It will simply be moved to an area with fewer minorities. Thus, Michiganians in urban areas will have ever fewer employment opportunities as businesses relocate to the non-minority suburbs.

There’s no reason to stop at the county or state line either. Factories could just relocate to Mexico, China or India where EPA guidelines don’t apply. In other words, EPA’s new power will result in government-forced transfer of jobs from urban minorities to suburban non-minorities (or even transferred out of the country entirely). Another related consequence of EPA’s new power would be the development of vast tracts of previously undeveloped rural land as businesses are forced to flee urban areas.

The EPA’s new power will also curtail Michigan’s plans to revitalize old industrial sites (also known as brownfields) in urban areas. The brownfields concept rests on the laudable notion that reusing old industrial sites will lessen the need to develop rural sites and thereby reduce urban sprawl. It was only about a year ago that Vice President Gore called on Congress to pass the President’s Brownfields Initiative in order to "support 196,000 jobs and protect 34,000 acres of undeveloped areas." Now, the administration has unilaterally handed EPA the power to eliminate those and many more jobs, and encourage development of those same rural areas the administration claimed it was trying to protect.

Many of Michigan’s top leaders are very concerned about what will happen if EPA’s power goes unopposed. Detroit’s Mayor Dennis Archer recently won the unanimous and bipartisan endorsement of the U.S. Conference of Mayors for his call for suspension of the new guidance. Congressman John Dingell (D-Dearborn) said, "I am delighted the mayors listened to Mayor Archer. It’s time the EPA demonstrated similar concern about job creation in our urban communities." EPA Administrator Carol Browner’s response was that she has no intention of suspending the rule. For the EPA, it’s now just a matter of how unelected federal bureaucrats will implement their regulations, regardless of what elected officials think.

Is there really a disparate impact on minorities that would justify a need for such sweeping EPA power? Recent reports indicate strongly that EPA ignored its own internal studies that showed that there was no link between race and contaminated "Superfund" priority sites slated for cleanup. At the same time EPA was apparently covering up those studies, it was doling out over $10 million dollars in grants to activist groups to push "environmental justice," including over $100,000 among five Michigan groups. Congressman Dingell, to his credit, wants a full report as to how those grant monies have been used.

Is there a better way to manage our environment without giving even more of our money and power to unelected federal bureaucrats? Reasonable solutions to the problems of environmental management can be found by letting local authorities work with communities to find solutions to local problems. For example, a regional landfill was built in Charles County, Virginia, with the consent of local residents. As a result of the annual $1.1 million collected in fees, local property taxes were reduced by 20 percent. Furthermore, the common law practice of protecting property rights offers far more promise for environmental preservation than arbitrary edicts from distant agencies.

Environmental management works best when power is in the hands of people at the local level, and when everyone’s right to keep others from polluting his property is protected through the common law. There’s no reason to give EPA more power at the expense of those Michiganians who can afford it least.