‘Environmental justice’ an emerging topic in Rockies | SummitDaily.com

‘Environmental justice’ an emerging topic in Rockies

COLORADO SPRINGS ” Low income and minority neighborhoods in the Rocky Mountain region’s urban areas are faced with a disproportionate share of environmental risks, according to the State of the Rockies report issued by Colorado College last week.

“We found striking patterns of what we call environmental goods and bads,” said student researcher Angela Banfill, releasing the results of an “environmental justice” scorecard at a conference in Colorado Springs. Environmental justice is based on the idea that people of every race, ethnicity and income group deserve equal rights to clean air, water and land.

Focusing on urban areas like Denver, Pueblo, Phoenix and Salt Lake City, the student researchers tried to outline the presence and magnitude of environmental inequities in the region by combining U.S. Census data with the EPA’s annual toxic release inventory (TRI). The results are striking, showing that In five of Colorado’s metropolitan areas, the poor and minorities are more likely to live closest to polluted air, polluted water and nuclear radiation.

“There’s a real need to consider environmental justice in the region,” Banfill said, explaining people living near toxic pollution sources earn 14 percent less income ($3,000 less per capita) than residents of “clean” areas.

The breakdown by ethnicity is equally distinct. There are 4 percent more non-whites, and 6 percent more Hispanics living in areas near toxic pollution sources than those living near non-polluted areas, she said. In Colorado Springs, 26 percent of residents living closest to toxic areas are non-white, compared to 19 percent of those living closest to clean areas, with similar numbers in Denver.

Other investigations have shown similar results, said University of Colorado researcher Liam Downey, who presented data from his own studies at the conference.

“National data show blacks are most burdened,” Downey said, after a displaying a series of maps showing a startling overlap between the location of toxin-emitting facilities and low-income and minority neighborhoods.

Both researchers made it clear that the data doesn’t show that all those residents are being exposed to toxic releases, but only that the proximity implies the potential for that exposure.

Mountain inequities?

The Colorado College and CU research focused mostly on urban areas, and both Downey and Banfill said there is not a lot of solid information on environmental justice when it comes to the region’s more rural reaches, including mountain resort communities in the High Country. For one thing, there is no EPA toxic release data for Summit County, since there’s no industry to speak of.

“It’s not going to be like urban areas. It’s going to be sort of reverse situation, not necessarily related to heath issues,” Banfill said. Instead, the question of environmental justice in mountain resort areas like Summit County relates to the unequal distribution of environmental benefits. In other words, do minority and low-income residents of the High Country share equally in the wealth of the environmental blessings?

Banfill mentioned the possibility of low-income and minority populations living in sub-standard housing, with a potential risk of exposure to environmental hazards. Trailer parks in floodplains come to mind, as well as affordable housing developments on land that is environmentally degraded in some way, or close to busy roads and highways.

“It’s a much more subtle, less tangible issue here,” said Carly Wier, director of the High Country Conservation Center. “But it’s something we should consider as we plan new development and affordable housing. Certainly, the gentrification of our communities should be a red flag,” she said.

While the concept of environmental justice calls forth a toxin-spewing vinyl manufacturing facility located near low-income housing in Wier’s mind, she said there are certain things that could be examined to assess the state of environmental justice in areas like Summit County.

For one thing, she said a close look at housing developments might reveal patterns of inequities.

“We need to make sure that affordable housing is sited so that there is access to open space and trails and transportation, instead of clustering it where it’s looking at the back of factory outlet stores,” Wier said. Another clue might come from how environmentally degraded brownfield areas are used for affordable housing development. “Yo don’t see second homes being built in areas like that,” she said.

But KT Gazunis, director of the Eagle County Housing Authority, said it’s unlikely that such patterns exist in the High Country. She said federal housing regulations are very clear in that regard.

“Most of the people in the housing business are very attuned to this issue,” Gazunis said. “It’s a much more serious issue in the cities.”

From a High Country housing perspective, Gazunis said her main concern within the context of environmental justice is to “avoid placing housing in something akin to slums.”

Information access

Access to environmental information and influence on planning and decision-making is another fundamental area where not everyone has an equal say, said Banfill, referring to the complex environmental review process used by federal agencies. While large companies like Vail Resorts can afford to spend thousands of dollars on consultants specifically trained to write and evaluate environmental studies, it’s not so clear that low-income and minority populations have the same ability ” or time and inclination ” to be involved in those processes.

So when decisions are made to allocate public resources, like a ski resort expansion permit, for example, that decision may not always reflect an equitable distribution of the resource across ethnic and socio-economic lines, Banfill said.

“There’s no question that ski areas are less accessible to lower income populations,” said EPA analyst Phil Strobel, who reviews, among other things, Forest Service ski area environmental studies. But at the same time, Strobel pointed out that the ski areas only comprise a tiny percentage of Forest Service lands in Colorado, and that many other areas are more or less equally accessible to everyone.

Strobel also said that access to environmental information and agency decision-making could be construed as an environmental justice issue, and said the regional EPA office includes an education component with outreach to Native American communities aimed at giving them the tools to participate in the process.

Another CU researcher at the State of Rockies conference approached this issue from a slightly different angle. Kathryn Mutz discussed the public resources committed to protecting wilderness areas and managing national parks, and raised the question of whether the allocation of those resources benefits all ethnic and income groups equally, across the board.

The Forest Service tries to consider those questions at least in part by including a civil rights impact study as part of its evaluations of various projects, said Ken Waugh, recreation staff officer for the Dillon Ranger District. Most recently, the agency considered economic and social factors as it developed a new management plan for the camping and day use facilities around Green Mountain Reservoir, Waugh said. The idea was to determine specifically how increased fees and other management changes affect the people who use the area, including lower income visitors who use the area because fees are low.

Raising these questions in an affluent resort area isn’t likely to be a popular cause, some of the Colorado College researchers suggested, but added that it’s a worthwhile undertaking, given this country’s stated commitment to “liberty and justice for all.”

Given the lack of quantifiable data, Banfill said the best way to assess the state of environmental justice in an area like Summit County could be with a series of case studies examining specific topics.

To garner public interest requires appealing to “people’s common sense, their notions of equality and compassion,” she concluded.

Environmental justice timeline

The federal government first acknowledged disparities in environmental equity in 1971, when the Council of Environmental Quality declared that low-income groups and people of color are disproportionately exposed to significant environmental hazards.

In 1987, a church-sponsored study found that race is the most significant factor in the siting of waste facilities, and estimated that 60 percent of all blacks and Latinos and half of all Asian-Americans lived in communities with at least one toxic waste site.

In the early 1990s, the issue showed up on the national radar screen after

concerted efforts by environmental justice advocates. In 1992, the White House established to Office of Environmental Justice as an arm of the EPA. President Clinton issued an executive order in 1994, requesting federal agencies identify and address the disproportionate health and environmental effects of its actions.

Clinton’s order established an administrative framework for environmental justice complaints with the EPA. But the agency has heard 130 cases since then without ever citing a violation. The order only calls for assessment and disclosure, but not the elimination of environmental inequities.

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 2003 reprimanded the EPA and other

federal agencies for failing to implement the Clinton order.

An environmental justice small grants program established by Clinton in 1994 annually gives $25,000 grants for environmental justice programs, but the number of grants has dropped under the Bush administration. The EPA awarded 684 grants during his last five years in office, compared to 296 grants during the first five years of the Bush administration.

According the State of the Rockies report, obstacles to environmental justice include tension between the mainstream environmental movement and the

environmental justice movement, a lack of specific state and federal laws, opposition to the idea of creating equity through policy, a small activist base and the difficulty of producing relevant risk assessments.

Without a legal framework, environmental justice lawsuits are often brought forward under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, requiring plaintiffs to prove intentional discrimination. No environmental justice lawsuits have ever been resolved in favor of victims under the act.

Economic factors also tend to perpetuate environmental inequalities. The Colorado College researchers point out that it’s simply cheaper to site toxic facilities in low income areas, where land is cheaper. Those communities also have fewer resources to devote to understanding the environmental implications, organizing opposition and hiring good legal representation.

The report also suggests there is some “ideological resistance” to the environmental justice movement in the American public at large, with some people arguing that living in areas exposed to hazardous chemicals is simply one’s free choice, and that the government shouldn’t be involved in those choices. Resistance to regulations can even come from within the communities affected by the siting of toxic facilities, with residents who depend on those facilities for jobs being reluctant to controls that could result in job losses.

Conflict between the mainstream environmental movement and the environmental justice movement may stem from the fact that mainstream groups ” especially in the West ” are often focused on protecting natural landscapes and ecosystems, and not so much on protecting people from environmental hazards. That has in some cases hindered the factions from working collaboratively on their goals.

Source: Colorado College State of the Rockies Report

Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at bberwyn@summitdaily.com.

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