10/10/2011 07:36 pm ET | Updated Dec 10, 2011

Environmental Justice Strategy Aims To Address Inequities Among Low-Income, Minority And Tribal Groups

AUSTIN, Texas -- Thirty years after the Midnite Mine was closed, clean-up of the 33 million tons of radioactive remains at the site -- located within the Spokane Indian Reservation in eastern Washington -- will finally begin. The new agreement to deal with the waste, reached between the federal government and one of the world's largest mining companies, comes after decades of ongoing concern over the inactive uranium mine's threats to tribal and environmental health.

The decision also reflects a growing recognition of the widespread and persistent disparities in the burden of toxic exposures.

Last Tuesday, at the inaugural SXSW Eco conference in Austin, Texas, Dr. J. Nadine Gracia, chief medical officer for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), announced the release of the 2012 HHS Draft Environmental Justice Strategy. The strategy, Gracia told HuffPost, "recognizes that Indian tribes are a target population with unique issues that we need to work with." The plan also addresses environmental health inequities among low-income and minority populations, and highlights everything from air pollution and unhealthy housing, to hazardous work conditions, environmental disasters and lack of access to nutritious foods or recreational opportunities. (Members of the public can submit comments on the draft until December 3. A final version will be released in February 2012.)

"Sometimes when we speak of the environment, there's little mention of health," said Gracia. "The issue of environmental justice provides one of the clearest examples of the relationship between the environment and health."

Bob Perciasepe, deputy administrator for the EPA, also emphasized the importance of this link and the need to protect all Americans from environmental health risks, especially those who are least able to help themselves. During a Wednesday panel at SXSW Eco, he told attendees that the "uneven distribution of exposures to pollutants" kept him up at night.

Other speakers pointed to model cases of environmental injustice including toxic exposures among agricultural workers and communities struck by the Gulf oil spill. Dr. Howard K. Koh, assistant secretary for health at HHS, referred to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans as a "tragic example of a terrible natural disaster striking a population that was very vulnerable to begin with, particularly minorities."

This is not the first time the federal government has recognized the environmental hazards disadvantaged communities face. The environmental justice movement began in earnest after reports in the 1980s found that hazardous waste facilities were more likely to be located in low-income and minority communities, prompting an executive order by President Clinton in 1994. The first environmental justice strategy was devised a year later.

The reinvigorated 2012 version of the strategic plan aims to further ensure that environmental justice factors into the federal decision-making process. The EPA, for example, recently released its own plan to integrate environmental justice into the agency's programs, policies and activities.

Among other revisions, Gracia noted the new strategy's enhanced focus on assisting states and tribes in identifying vulnerable populations, as well as improving weather surveillance and other public health preparations to help communities better respond to disasters. The plan now also formally addresses the effects of climate change -- from sea level rise and extreme weather events to exacerbated air pollution. Poor and minority populations may bear the brunt of these changes, suggest some experts.

Further, the new plan encourages the meaningful involvement of those affected. "One of the big changes is recognizing that environmental justice really is not just about protecting communities from these hazards, but is actually about building healthy communities and giving them capacity to do so," Gracia told HuffPost.

Mando Rayo, vice president of engagement for Cultural Strategies, noted in a Tuesday panel that minorities tend to welcome an opportunity to help protect the environment. "They are the ones seeing the issues related to a lot of these environmental problems," he said. Recent surveys, Rayo pointed out, also suggest that minorities are more concerned about pollution and global warming than the general American population.

Green building is a powerful place to start addressing environmental injustice while opening up new opportunities for employment, according to Elizabeth Galante, director of the non-profit group Global Green USA's New Orleans office. "If you want to do environmental work in Louisiana, you have to focus on economic equity," she said during a Thursday panel. "There are ways to use the built environment to create opportunities to inspire, teach and to lift communities out of poverty."

Galante helps lead an effort called Build It Back Green. Over the last three years, the team has visited every New Orleans neighborhood, bringing in construction experts to show residents how to perform weatherization and other green improvements to their homes. If a resident lacks the resources to pay a contractor to do the work, she said, the program will often cover the costs.

She told the story of one woman helped by the program. For three years prior to her upgrades, the woman had relied on an oxygen tank to breathe in her polluted home. Shortly after the upgrades, she sent the tank back. "It's not just about the energy bills," said Galante. "It's about health and quality of life."

Dana Bourland, vice president of Green Initiatives at Enterprise Community Partners, agreed that living in an energy inefficient house can be a "huge liability" -- likely resulting in energy costs four times as high as those residents of modern homes rack up.

"No more than two percent in total development costs is needed to achieve our energy and water standards," said Bourland. This comes out to about $1,900, while the payback is far greater: about $4,800 in energy and water savings, not to mention the health benefits, she said.

However, providing housing alone is not enough, Bourland said on Thursday's panel.

"As a country, we spend about $17 billion a year on gas just to sit in congestion," she said, noting that low-income households are often disproportionately affected; about 70 percent of their income is spent on housing and transportation. "At the end of the day, they may have roughly 800 dollars a month left for other things," added Bourland.

Given the built environment's powerful influence on a person's day-to-day healthy (or unhealthy) choices, she suggested the importance of locating housing in areas that are walkable and in close proximity to grocery stores and parks.

Across the country, an estimated $226 billion could be saved if communities were better designed to limit costly congestion and energy waste, as well as to cut the high medical costs associated with asthma, obesity and other health consequences, Bourland said.

Still, the more immediate concern for many victims is simply how to get out of their current situation and into a wealthier and healthier one. With unemployment at 55 percent for tribal members living on the Spokane Indian Reservation, according to the Seattle Times, people are eager for jobs cleaning up the radioactive and toxic chemicals that have leaked for decades into the reservation's streams, soil, plants and animals -- a $193 million project that is expected to take a decade.

"How the cleanup will occur is important," Deb Abrahamson, founder of the SHAWL Society and tribal activist, told the Times, suggesting that tribal workers should know the risks and how to protect themselves, or "we're going to have another generation facing occupational exposure to toxins."

CORRECTION: Dr. J. Nadine Gracia announced the HHS Environmental Justice Strategy, not Lisa Garcia as the story previously reported.