THE BLOG
01/25/2016 04:29 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2017

EPA to Weaken Civil Rights Protections Under Obama

The nation just observed Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, and with horrible irony, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in the midst of trashing part of King's legacy.

I say this because the EPA Office of Civil Rights is trying to weaken civil rights protections, impacting communities that suffer environmental discrimination. Yep, you read that right. The EPA's Office of Civil Rights has proposed weakening civil rights protections by eliminating the deadlines for investigating the civil rights complaints it receives.

Report after report shows that black and brown communities get dumped on the most and the hardest. In fact, a recent study from two professors at the University of Montana and the University of Michigan found that racial discrimination and assumptions that communities of color offer the "path of least resistance" drive decisions about who gets more LULUS or locally unwanted land uses.

Communities of color and those in low-income neighborhoods are more likely to live near landfills, waste transfer stations, sewage treatment plants than white Americans. To make matters worse, we're more likely to live by power plants, oil refineries, highways, bus depots and more apt to suffer the ill-health affects like asthma and heart disease because of it.

The Office of Civil Rights' mission, in large part, is to prevent states, municipalities and private companies that receive EPA funds from allowing or enabling environmental discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity.

When local and state governments issue pollution permits for landfills and waste transfer stations and ignore the fact that such permits would overburden black or brown communities that already have an unfair burden of pollution, they're breaking the law. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 allows federal agencies to withhold funds when a recipient of federal funds is discriminating on the basis of color, national origin, sex; disability; and age. And discrimination doesn't have to be intentional, it refers to unjustified unequal impacts.

When the Office of Civil Rights receives such complaints, it can take action by withholding federal funding from states and municipalities, if civil rights were violated. And the EPA can force polluters to the table to alleviate the damage they would otherwise cause.

Unfortunately, the Office of Civil Rights has a terrible record of acting on discrimination complaints.
Consider what happened to the Ashurst Bar community that Ron Smith, of Tallassee Ala., lives in.

Smith, 63, a pastor, returned recently to his family property to care for his mother. In the 1990s, Smith's parents Ann and Thomas unsuccessfully fought the Alabama Department of Environmental Management's decision to permit the Stone's Throw Landfill to operate in their historically black community. Since then, his mother has been dealing with the burden of this pollution, which includes hundreds of acres of everything from household garbage to asbestos and sewage. When Smith leaves his house he's hit with the nasty stench that comes from mountains of trash.

Typically, hours before daybreak, massive trucks barrel down small rural roads to dump garbage from counties around the state. Vultures circle and stray dogs search for scraps amongst the refuse. Residents worry about the quality of their air and the polluted groundwater that some rely on to water their gardens.

In 2003, the residents filed a complaint with the EPA arguing that the Alabama Department of Environmental Management discriminated against their community on the basis of race by granting the landfill owners a permit to operate.

The EPA has 180 days to determine whether a complaint it's considering violated a complainant's civil rights. But far more than 180 days have passed. It's been 13 years.

Not taking action on such complaints is pretty much the norm for the EPA Office of Civil Rights. In fact, an investigative report by the Center for Public Integrity and NBC in August found that the EPA received nearly 300 discrimination complaints in its 22-year history and has never made a formal finding of a civil rights violation. More than 90 percent of communities that make complaints find their complaints rejected or dismissed.

In the years that Smith has been waiting for action, Stone's Throw landfill has doubled in size, swallowing up more and more property, depressing property values. When people die, their children and grandchildren don't want to keep property next to a landfill and they sell to Stone's Throw Landfill, leading to the decline of this historically black community.

Smith told Ebony: "Every landfill in the State of Alabama is in a black community or in an economically depressed community.

The whole reason they're there is because the communities can't defend themselves. It's the path of least resistance."

And, as if to mock the Ashurst Bar community, Alabama Department of the Environment recently gave Stone's Throw Landfill its Landfill of the Year Award.

Earthjustice is one of many groups that's trying to push the EPA to do a better job of acting on civil rights complaints. Earlier this year, communities sued the EPA for allowing five separate civil rights complaints, including the one involving Ashurst Bar, to languish for more than a decade.

Now, under this proposal, which is open for public comment until Feb. 12, the EPA would no longer have deadlines for acting on complaints and won't even have to investigate those they determine have merit.

A couple of years ago, in a major speech about civil rights, President Obama said: "To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency."

I wonder what he would say about the EPA's current proposal?