An oil refinery in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Beaumont, Tex. A hazardous waste disposal site in Chaves County, N.M., a largely low-income, largely Hispanic area. Two power plants in Pittsburg, Calif., where most of the residents are from minority communities.
These facilities were the subject of civil rights complaints filed with the Environmental Protection Agency more than 10 years ago. The complainants in most of them are still waiting for decisions.
The E.P.A.’s Office of Civil Rights is supposed to enforce Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race by any recipient of federal money. So when state or local regulatory agencies that get federal assistance allow refineries, landfills or other facilities to disproportionately affect the health or safety of minority communities, those communities have a right to turn to the Office of Civil Rights for help.
Under the rules, the E.P.A. is supposed to decide within 20 days of a complaint whether to investigate, and to issue a preliminary finding within 180 days. But in practice, the agency takes an average of 350 days just to determine whether it will investigate, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity, and a number of investigations by the agency have been open for years. 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.
The environmental law firm Earthjusticesued the E.P.A. in Federal District Court in California on behalf of the complainants in the Beaumont, Chaves County and Pittsburg cases and two other groups, alleging that the E.P.A. “unlawfully withheld and unreasonably delayed” action on the cases. Part of the challenge, environmental advocates say, is that the E.P.A., accustomed to enforcing clean air and water rules, has not made antidiscrimination enforcement a priority. A lack of clear standards for determining compliance with Title VI is another problem.
The Office of Civil Rights seems aware of these concerns and has beenhiring new employees with civil rights experience. The office is also working on clearer guidance to help recipients of federal money comply with antidiscrimination law.
In May, the E.P.A. issued a draft of its five-year plan for ensuring that all communities have equal protection from environmental threats. The period for public comment on the plan was to close on Thursday, but has been extended to July 28. The plan calls for changes to the agency’s rule-making, permitting and enforcement practices, as well as programs to reduce exposure to lead and other hazards in low-income and minority neighborhoods. If the agency hopes to hold states and cities accountable for shielding vulnerable residents from environmental harm, it will need to address complaints more rigorously — and much more quickly — than it has.