Press Briefing by E.P.A. Administrator Carol Browner and Attorney General Janet Reno
The Briefing Room
11:23 A.M. EST
ADMINISTRATOR BROWNER: The President joined by Representatives from community groups across this country just signed an Executive Order that will require all federal agencies to consider the issues of environmental justice in their decision-making. Nobody can question that for far too long, communities across this country -- low income, minority communities -- have been asked to bear a disproportionate share of our modern industrial life.
Today's Executive Order is designed and will seek to bring justice to these communities. It will seek to involve these communities in the decision-making of the government to give them access to the information they need to be real participants.
I met this morning with a large group of community activists -- over 1,000 people -- and I listened to them and I left that meeting with a very heavy heart because these are people who do not feel a part of their government, who do not feel that their concerns have been heard.
With this Executive Order, we take the first step in addressing the needs of these communities and working with these communities to solve the problem. At the end of the day, environmental decisions based on real and informed community involvement will be far better than any decision than I can make here in Washington.
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: Thank you.
I come from a community in which I walked. I walked through minority neighborhoods and saw a disproportionate impact of dumps, of debris, of pollution and tried to take action. If we are to have strong communities in America, if we are to focus on communities and what is important to them, it is imperative that we all join together in seeking vigorous enforcement of our civil rights laws as they impact on the environment and our environmental laws to ensure economic justice.
The President has asked us to make economic justice and environmental justice a priority. He has asked us to ensure all communities in this nation have adequate environmental protection. That's to go with protecting our children, giving our children a chance to grow in a strong and healthy way rather than walking to school with a dump heap along the way that pollutes their very life as much as violence pollutes their life.
We are committed to this effort. I have asked my Counselor, Gerald Torres to spearhead the effort, and we want to make
sure that environmental justice becomes as much a reality as the other justices that people are entitled to in this nation.
Q: when we just heard about dumps along the way, could you give us some more specific examples of what you would consider environmental injustice?
ADMINISTRATOR BROWNER: You can travel through any urban inner city community in this country and see examples of environmental justice. You can see residential communities immediately adjacent to large numbers of industrial facilities to toxic dump sites.
We need to make sure that the environmental laws of this country address the people most at risk, that they are designed to protect those people. You can travel to reservations where the people subsistence fish and the standards that are set for what is a safe amount of fish to consume are not based on their diet of daily fish but rather on the diet of a middle class white male who perhaps eats fish once or twice a month.
Those are two pressing examples. I think those are the sort of things that we will be able to address. In fact, fish consumption advisories are specifically highlighted in the Executive Order signed by the President.
Q: already covered by environmental laws? I mean, water quality, laws governing --
ADMINISTRATOR BROWNER: You're right that environmental laws cover the individual issues. What we need now -- what we need to do now is look across the spectrum. We need to look at in the data collection that will be required by the Executive Order will allow us to look at what are the cumulative impacts in a particular community of the six or seven different facilities that have been located there. To do the same when we talk about pesticide use in this country -- to not just look at what would be the effective, an individual pesticide, on a child, but to put that in conjunction with all of the other pathways of exposures, the diet of the child, the use of pesticides in the home, in the school -- to look comprehensively at the impacts on the individuals.
Q: Secretary Browner, can you tell us the mechanisms of how this oversight is going to work? Is it going to be like a NEPA review or is it going to apply only to projects with federal funding?
ADMINISTRATOR BROWNER: There are in the Executive Order, first of all, 16 federal agencies are required to incorporate environmental justice into all of their decision-making. They are required to develop a plan within a year as to how they will address these agencies. There will be a working group chaired by myself convened to look at issues that cut across several agencies. And there is a requirement to actually collect the data to inform the decision-making data that we have not previously collected.
Q: I was in -- last weekend and with Hazel Johnson, and she showed me where people fish in polluted water and there is no posting of "no fishing." Now, in the clean water bill, one of the things that was left out was posting signs so that people would know that it's polluted water and they shouldn't fish. Is this Executive Order going to carry through to make some changes in that kind of legislation?
ADMINISTRATOR BROWNER: The Executive Order as it specifically relates to fish consumption will require us to look at the populations most at risk, to look at the people whose subsistence, fish, on the individual waterways, which is not
something that has happened historically. This is a very significant change. In terms of the posting issues, that is a conversation that has been taking place with the relevant committees on the Hill.
Q: change then --
ADMINISTRATOR BROWNER: That would require legislative change -- that would require legislative --
Q: A question for the Attorney General. What are the odds that we're going to see any environmental racism cases brought against specific corporations in the next few years?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: I don't know how you describe environmental racism, but what we want to do is make sure that we look at the people most at risk and that we make sure our environmental laws, our civil rights laws, are used as vigorously as possible to correct injustice.
Q: What about -- will you be taking action against specific corporations --
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: What we're going to try to do is go after individual and corporations who violate our laws and make sure that we use our investigative capabilities and our enforcement capabilities as the risk is proportionate to the number of people involved; to make sure that there is no group, no minority, no neighborhood with a disproportionate risk that is not properly protected by the laws of this land.
Q: Secretary Browner, there was an article in the National Law Journal about a year ago that showed that when the EPA tried to fight polluters in disparate neighborhoods, the sanctions and fines were higher for white neighborhoods than they were in black neighborhoods. What are you going to do to change that?
ADMINISTRATOR BROWNER: We have undertaken a project to look at the findings of that study to understand whether in fact what the study suggested is occurring. When we fine companies -- when we penalize them for violating environmental laws, we do take into account ability to pay the fine; because not only do we want a fine paid, but we want a corrective action taken. We want the pollution cleaned up. And so it is a comprehensive analysis that we are undertaking to ensure that we don't, in fact, have lower penalties being applied in certain communities. But it's not as simple as just looking at the dollar amount that may have been applied in a particular event.
Q: I was just going to follow up and say -- what kind of concrete actions can you take, because this is at the discretion of various lawyers as opposed to the EPA, and things like that? I mean, what kind of actions can you take other than --
ADMINISTRATOR BROWNER: Well, as you know, we just reorganized our Office of Enforcement. It had been torn apart in one of the prior administrations. Not only have we brought it back together so it can be a coordinated office of enforcement, but we have strengthened it. We have built into the Office of Enforcement compliance assurance so that we can work in a consistent, coordinated way and to focus our activities on particular neighborhoods, in particular, industries where we have reason to believe the worst problems are occurring.
Q: How specifically will the Executive Order affect private contractors that do business with the federal government? Has that been determined yet?
SECRETARY BROWNER: I don't know if the lawyers have specifically looked at that. Is there is a particular fact situation? I might be able to answer --
Q: Well, sort of, two instances that come to mind would be -- one would be a private company that the Department of Energy contracts out to clean up a nuclear weapons plant; another example would be a pulp mill that makes paper that it sells to the federal government.
SECRETARY BROWNER: The civil rights law -- and the Attorney General is going to be far better able to answer this than I am -- as I understand it, does cover expenditures of federal monies. And it requires that those expenditures be in keeping with the requirements of the Civil Rights Act and all of the various titles.
Q: So the Executive Order would then cover private contractors in that --
SECRETARY RENO: What the Executive Order is going to try to do is to make sure that we all look at this together, that the civil rights division looks at all of these issues, and working with the environmental and natural resources division in the Department of Justice and EPA, that we look at it and make sure that the laws are enforced in that regard as well.
Just to go beyond into so many different areas, we can work with HUD in terms of impact. It is a classic example of how this administration has come together with HHS, HUD, Education, everybody, EPA, working together and trying to look at the picture as a whole.
Q: Administrator Browner, beyond involving the community in the decision in enforcing existing law, is there any sense that you are going to try and divorce the relationship between potential environmental hazards and low income areas. I mean, refineries and incinerators tend to locate in low income areas. Is there any --
SECRETARY BROWNER: The data collection requirements in the Executive Order will now allow us to have the information and to do the analysis to understand what are the cumulative impacts on these communities so that we can begin to shape our decision-making based on all of the information that is appropriate to that decisionmaking. Unfortunately, we have not collected, in many instances, the government or others have not collected the information that is going to be very important as we move forward to address these concerns.
I think it's important for people to understand that this is a first step. There are many, many more steps to come if we are really going to address the problems that these communities are raising. They are problems that are the result of many actions over a very long period of time. We begin today, I think, with a strong start, but we all recognize that there will be the need for many more steps.
END 11:34 A.M. EST
William J. Clinton, Press Briefing by E.P.A. Administrator Carol Browner and Attorney General Janet Reno Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/269498