Citizen groups and environmental organizations have for years challenged state and federal governmental agencies to respond to the environmental and public-health hazards disproportionately affecting low-income communities and communities of color. With President Clinton's signing of the Executive Order on Environmental Justice on February 11, 1994, environmental justice gained recognition as a national priority. The State of Texas has been in the forefront of addressing this important issue; in 1993 the heads of the state's two environmental regulatory agencies jointly appointed an Environmental Equity and Justice Task Force. Shortly afterwards, an Environmental Equity Office was established at the state environmental regulatory agency.
An increasing body of research has confirmed claims by environmental justice leaders that toxic pollution disproportionally affects their communities. According to a recent analysis of 64 empirical studies on environmental impacts on communities, racial disparities were found more frequently than income disparities. The review also shows that racial disparities were found for a whole range of environmental hazards, including air pollution, pesticide exposure and the proximity to noxious facilities.(1)
Moreover, according to a 1992 analysis of the EPA's enforcement of Superfund laws by the National Law Journal, glaring procedural inequities exist. The National Law Journal report states: "There is a racial divide in the way the U.S. government cleans up toxic waste sites and punishes polluters. White communities see faster action, better results and stiffer penalties than communities where blacks, Hispanics and other minorities live. This unequal protection occurs whether the community is wealthy or poor."(2) As the Journal report reveals, discrepancies exist in the enforcement of environmental laws, such as penalties imposed, and in the pace of cleanup.
Several events gave rise to the movement for environmental justice in Texas. In recent years at least a half-dozen citizen-based groups in Texas communities of color started organizing around environmental and public health issues. A West Dallas Latino and African American community was fighting the effects of lead contamination. African American residents of the Carver Terrace neighborhood in Texarkana found their community was built on an abandoned creosote plant. The Concerned Citizens of North Athens were fighting the siting of a proposed hazardous waste management facility slated for construction across the street from a low-income African American neighborhood. Latino community groups in Rosenberg, Austin and El Paso were battling authorities about toxic dangers in their midst. For example, in Rosenberg, Concerned Citizens for Community Development opposed the expansion of a landfill in their low-income, Mexican American neighborhood. Regional and statewide networks, such as the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice and the Texas Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, began to bring together grassroots organizations of people of color to address these issues at the state, regional and national levels.
As a result of these and other efforts to bring visibility to environmental justice issues, Texas Air Control Board Chair Kirk Watson and Texas Water Commission Chair John Hall in January l993 created the Environmental Equity and Justice Task Force. The first of its kind in the nation, this task force was created expressly to "ensure that public benefits resulting from the work of [the] new consolidated environmental agency will be fully and equitably realized by low-income communities and communities of color, taking into account the greater degree of hazard to which some communities are already exposed."(3)
The Task Force included representatives of the major oil companies, the Texas Association of Business, environmental groups, state agencies and city and county officials. In August 1993, the task force presented its report to the agencies. The report recommended, among other items: developing a comprehensive database with demographic information to help the agency in comprehensive environmental planning; encouraging local governments to develop master plans that include environmental and public-health provisions; and encouraging regulatory agencies to develop information which meets the diverse language needs of communities of color.
Soon after, the Commissioners of the newly created Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission established an Environmental Equity Office within the TNRCC to implement the report's recommendations. Citizen groups and environmental organizations continue to monitor the implementation process and continue to advocate for additional policy changes.
Marianne Lavelle, Marcia Coyle and Claudia MacLachlan "Unequal Protection: The Racial Divide in Environmental Law," The National Law Journal, September 21, 1994, S1.
In September, 1993, the Texas Water Commission and the Texas Air Control Board were consolidated into the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC).
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