February 11, 2014

Twenty Years Later, Is the Executive Order on Environmental Justice Enough?

343 Twenty years ago today, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898. This landmark victory for the Environmental Justice movement was the first serious action to address environmental justice at the federal level -- requiring federal agencies to stop minority and low-income populations from being dumped on, polluted on, and incinerated on “disproportionately”.

But does the Order do enough?

The Order correctly acknowledges that minority and low-income communities have been targeted as the wastelands of the rich to be disproportionately burdened, resulting in environmental racism and injustice.

Sixteen federal agencies are required to develop and implement environmental justice strategies as a result of the Order, and President Obama recently created a Memorandum of Understanding with numerous heads of federal agencies signing on (again) to elevate the environmental justice conversation. Those of us who live, work, play and struggle in our communities to prevent environmental looters and scam artist from further ruining our communities know first hand that this is not and has not been enough.

The Order has been a significant win for the environmental justice movement and it holds powerful historical significance for providing a tool for impacted communities to fight against environmental vultures. Several communities have used the Executive Order successfully to prevent an onslaught of additional environmental injustices.  Case in point, the city of Chester, PA (my home town) used the order to successfully prevent a tire incinerator from being operated in 2001. Although a win, it has not changed the fact that Chester continues to be a toxic wasteland  — with all of the health and environmental disparities that come with it — proof to me that the Order does not go far enough.

Although the Order was a momentous gift from the elders of the environmental justice movement as it provided a foundation to empower impacted communities in ways that they had never experienced before, it falls short because it lacks the teeth and strength required to end the environmental fights that seem to continuously repeat themselves from community to community. I believe that many of the elders would agree that the Order still does not go far enough to end environmental racism and injustice.  

An Executive Order is only as strong as the resources that are given to support it. It makes me wonder what the environmental movement leaders young and old are doing to ensure that the Order is not merely a symbol of the struggle but an actual resource to provide solutions to an epidemic that has yet to be eradicated.

The environmental movement is, arguably, the most important movement of our time. It touches every living species on the planet whether you believe it or not. Environmental justice is a significant and integral part of the environmental movement that needs to be supported by executive orders, financial resources that invest in tangible and viable solutions, large greens broadening their scope of activism, impacted communities leading the charge with them and a front and center place at the podium in order for the movement to be successful.    

What if the Order was more than a moment in time but rather the momentum to change our movement in this very moment?  We should celebrate the past 20 years of Executive Order 12898 because it is worthy of celebration but we should not ignore or forget the fact that it is still an insufficient resource to solve the environmental injustices that continue today.