The issue of states’ rights was a central and hotly debated one in the late 18th century as the U.S.’ Founding Fathers sought to establish an independent nation. It continues to be one today, and environmental laws and regulations are often at the cutting edge.
The field of environmental justice is the offspring of two prominent, originally counter-culture movements of the 1960s and ‚Äò70s – the civil rights and environmental movements. It began to coalesce and take shape in the 1980s and in Oct. 1991 the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit was held in Washington D.C.
“Seventeen principles of environmental justice were drafted and adopted. Among those were assertions that environmental justice ‚Äòdemands that public policy be based on mutual respect and justice for all peoples, free from any form of discrimination or bias’,” wrote Taylor Sisk in a Nov. 15 article in North Carolina’s Carboro Citizen.
This charter statement of principles also “affirms the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural and environmental self-determination of all peoples”; “demands the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making”; and “protects the right of victims of environmental injustice to receive full compensation and reparations for damages.”
Environmental justice has since evolved and grown, and now serves as a nationwide forum for a wide range of related issues – from emissions, fuel efficiency and renewable fuel and power standards to where and how we should dispose of our trash and toxic waste – as well as a well-spring of grass roots, democratic action.
The EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory revisions
Just how sensitive public opinion is to socio-economic and environmental issues, particularly when they have to do with toxic chemicals, has been aptly illustrated following the EPA’s Dec. 2006 decision to roll back and weaken the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) program. The EPA’s revised regulations increase 10-fold the quantity of chemical waste a facility can generate without providing detailed TRI reports, which were mandated by the U.S. Congress and then President Reagan in 1986 in the wake of the toxic chemical catastrophe at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India.
On November 28 last year, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced that a coalition of 12 states was suing the EPA “over new regulations denying public access to information abut toxic chemicals in their communities.
“The EPA’s rollback of TRI regulations now limits the ability of labor organizations, environmental and public health advocates, community groups and individuals to effectively monitor and respond to the presence of toxins in their communities. The EPA’s rollback particularly impacts low-income communities and communities of color, many of which are burdened with the siting of industrial facilities,” according to a media release.
State environmental and occupational health and safety departments and agencies, the AFL-CIO, the United Steelworkers International, the Federal Information Policy for OMB Watch, the National Environmental Trust, the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), and university professor/environmental science researchers, among others, are joining in support of the state attorney generals’ lawsuit.
Battling it out in New Mexico
Where to dump all the trash and waste we produce has always been a hotly debated and contentious issue. It’s one that many municipal, state and federal government leaders and officials wish they could just make go away – and some of have sought to do just that.
The issue is at the heart of those relating to the environmental justice movement, and one addressed, both generally and in the case of specific cases, in “Environmental Justice in New Mexico,” an article in the January issue of the New Mexico Business Outlook written by New Mexico State University professor Dr. Chris Erickson.
“Two basic principles underlie EJ: that no group should bear a disproportionate environmental burden and that all groups should have input into decisions concerning environmental regulation…EJ has gained considerable ground in New Mexico recently. In November of 2005, Governor Richardson issued Executive Order 2005-056, which sets guidelines for public involvement in the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws. The order calls particularly for involvement of people of color and those living in low-income communities,” Erickson recounts as he summarily traces the roots and current state of environmental justice in New Mexico.
Erickson is also a consultant to the City of Sunland Park, which is opposing the renewal of the permit for the Camino Real Landfill, New Mexico’s largest. Some 80 percent of its waste originates across the border in El Paso County, Texas.
Sunland Park is 90% Hispanic and poor – residents’ overall average income is less than half the national average. The city is arguing that the Camino Real permit should not be renewed as “it imposes an unfair burden given the widespread poverty in the area and given the existence of other polluting industries in or near the city,” both of which give it some legal legs to stand on.
Erickson points out that Sunland Park clearly qualifies as a low-income, minority community under a recent, favorable ruling and legal precedent to do with landfill siting decided by the New Mexico Supreme Court in CDC v. Rhino Environmental Services, Inc. And that the issue also falls under the environmental justice regulations set out by Gov. Richardson’s 2005 executive order.
The case is bound for the courts, however, in Erickson’s opinion as the New Mexico Environment Department is arguing that the state supreme court’s decision in the CDC-Rhino case dealt with the issuance of a new permit and does not cover permit renewals, as is the case with the Camino Real landfill.