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Clinton seizes on environmental justice but progress requires deep reforms

Residents of Flint, Michigan wait at a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C. on the water crisis. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Hillary Clinton has won the California primary, in part by appealing to environmentalists in a state with a long tradition in conservation and aggressive climate change policies. The victory follows the release earlier this spring of her strategy to address environmental and climate justice – a topic that’s risen to national prominence following the Flint water crisis.

Clinton vowed in unequivocal terms to address an array of environmental issues affecting poor and minority communities in the United States. The initiatives she described in her Plan to Fight for Environmental and Climate Justice focused on important problems such as lead contamination of drinking water, urban air pollution and climate change. Significantly, Clinton’s statement coincided with a speech she made on racism and civil rights at the annual conference of the National Action Network.

Amidst an unexpectedly competitive primary against Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, it is not surprising that Clinton emphasized these particular issues. These problems are highly salient to many Democratic primary voters, especially in the wake of the Flint drinking water crisis, the long battle over the Keystone XL pipeline and the ongoing fights over EPA regulations to reduce traditional air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions. In this sense, Clinton’s strategy appears squarely aimed at satisfying electoral demands.

As my recent research with colleagues argues, however, her stated strategy will not address the historical failings of government policy to address environmental inequalities.

Connection between climate and social justice

Clinton’s Plan to Fight for Environmental and Climate Justice consists of a mix of new ideas and previously announced policy initiatives.

Among the new ideas are a call to “eliminate lead as a major public health threat within five years,” a commitment to “prosecute criminal and civil violations that expose communities to environmental harm” and a proposal to “establish an Environmental and Climate Justice Task Force” to make environmental justice an important part of federal decision-making.

The rest of the plan mostly includes a repackaging of policy proposals that Clinton has previously announced, either as part of her broader energy and climate change initiative or her plan to modernize the nation’s infrastructure. Among the most noteworthy items are Clinton’s Clean Energy Challenge, which is a proposed competitive grant program to reward states, cities and rural communities that make exceptional efforts to adopt clean energy and energy efficiency investments.

Clinton in February listens to a woman in South Carolina who compares her water quality to that in Flint, Michigan. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Reaction to Clinton’s strategy was by some accounts tepid. Some environmental justice advocates expressed disappointment that the plan neither went far enough nor acknowledged that many people and organizations have been working on these issues for decades.

Setting aside the merits of the set of proposals for a moment, the fundamental premise of Clinton’s statement is noteworthy. Few U.S. politicians seem to recognize the interconnection between climate change and environmental justice, and even fewer speak about them together in such explicit terms.

And Clinton’s commitments stand in stark contrast to the positions taken by the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump. Not only has Trump failed to propose substantive solutions to environmental problems; he has dismissed the reality of climate change altogether and flippantly suggested the elimination of the EPA.

Nevertheless, it is important to analyze Clinton’s proposals on their merits, particularly as they relate to environmental justice. Her climate change initiatives, in contrast, have received plenty of discussion and analysis elsewhere.

Need for good governance

The initiatives that Clinton outlined in her environmental justice strategy emphasize large public expenditures to address sources of lead and failing infrastructure (e.g., drinking water and wastewater systems). She also calls for broadening economic opportunities in low-income and minority communities through programs to remediate and redevelop “brownfields,” or former industrial sites, and to invest in clean energy and energy efficiency to reduce pollution and decrease energy poverty.

These are certainly laudable ideas. One recent EPA study found that water utilities alone may need to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to upgrade their systems.

However, achieving environmental justice is not just about spending more money. The lessons of three decades of failed federal policy reveal that addressing environmental justice is as much about governance and management as it is financial resources.

Specifically, there is ample opportunity for the EPA to better integrate environmental justice considerations into its permitting, standard-setting and enforcement decisions (something Clinton’s plan does mention). Also, there is a need to enhance the EPA’s public-facing processes so they are more inclusive of vulnerable populations, and to more effectively manage intergovernmental relationships. This last item is particularly important, given the central role that state governments have in implementing environmental policy in the United States.

Take the crisis in Flint as an example. The contamination of the city’s public drinking water supply with lead was the result of flawed, and perhaps criminal, decision-making, as well as negligent government oversight.

Despite repeated efforts by local residents, public health officials and scientists to raise red flags, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) failed to prioritize the issue. And, even worse, MDEQ officials continued to declare the water safe despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

The EPA’s efforts to push MDEQ to take corrective action were rebuffed and met with deceit from the state. Yet, even with the information the EPA had, the agency should have acted sooner and with more vigor. Considering the EPA’s recent emphasis on environmental justice, and Flint’s historical status of a community facing environmental protection inequalities, the paltry response from the EPA was striking.

One of the lessons of Flint is that achieving environmental justice requires good governance – the mishandled administrative response delayed corrective action and worsened a public health crisis.

The EPA during the Obama administration has recognized that, at least to the extent that the federal government can contribute to solutions, deep administrative reforms are needed. And, to the EPA’s credit, it has begun to implement important management reforms and changes to decision-making processes to do just that as part of its Plan EJ 2014 initiative.

This is precisely where Hillary Clinton’s Plan to Fight for Environmental and Climate Justice falls short.

Perhaps it is for good reason that presidential candidates do not emphasize the importance of good governance and administrative reform during their campaigns. These issues do not to create headlines or capture the attention of most voters, certainly less so than pledges of spending large amounts of money in communities of need.

However, resolving complex problems like environmental justice requires more than public investment. It requires government agencies that understand the nature of the problems and the role that effective government agencies can have in addressing them.

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