Report on Environmental Equity: Reducing Risks for All Communities

[EPA press release - July 22, 1992]

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today released its final environmental equity report. The report, requested by Administrator William K. Reilly, reviews existing data on the distribution of environmental exposures and risks across population groups.

The report, Environmental Equity: Reducing Risks For All Communities, includes a series of findings and recommendations. Among the findings were that there are clear differences between racial groups in terms of disease and death rates; racial minority and low-income populations experience higher than average exposures to selected air pollutants, hazardous waste facilities, contaminated fish and agricultural pesticides in the workplace; and great opportunities exist for EPA and other government agencies to improve communication about environmental problems with members of low-income and racial minority groups.

Among the recommendations in the report are that EPA should increase the priority that it gives to issues of environmental equity; identify and target opportunities to reduce high concentrations of risk to specific population groups; and increase efforts to involve racial minority and low-income communities in environmental policy-making.

"EPA's basic goal is to make certain that the consequences of environmental pollution should not be borne unequally by any segment of the population," said EPA Administrator William K. Reilly. "EPA has a responsibility to identify and target these populations. This report offers EPA and state agencies recommendations for how to address these equity concerns."

On the recommendation of the report, Administrator Reilly has established an Environmental Equity Cluster, a team of senior staff from all of the Agency's programs and regions. "The Cluster's principal mission is to develop Agency policies to address differential risk and a comprehensive long-term agenda for action," explained Herbert H. Tate, Jr., EPA's Assistant Administrator for Enforcement and chairman of the Cluster.

The Administrator has also established a new Environmental Equity Office to deal with environmental impacts on racial minority and low-income communities. The office's core functions will include 1) serving as the agency's and the public's point of contact for equity outreach, technical assistance, and information dissemination, and 2) administering the Minority Academic Institutions Program. Dr. Clarice Gaylord, a senior scientist with EPA, will direct the Office.

Environmental Equity: Reducing Risks for All Communities

Chapter 1: Introduction and Executive Summary

The Environmental Agenda

Over the past twenty years, the United States has made considerable progress in protecting and cleaning up the environment. Many forms of air pollution have been significantly reduced, many surface water systems have shown dramatic recovery and hazardous wastes are better managed. To achieve this progress, the nation enacted major laws at the federal, state and local levels, established agencies to administer these laws and expended considerable sums to install and operate control equipment. Today there is also a growing movement throughout our society to prevent pollution before it is ever created, through changes in production and consumption practices.

This progress has brought important benefits to many communities throughout the U.S. But many environmental problems remain, and some are regrettably growing. In many locations the air remains too polluted, the water is still too dirty and the land still bears too much uncontrolled waste. There are numerous efforts underway to identify, rank and clean up these problems. All communities have a direct interest in identifying, prioritizing, and addressing environmental problems.

Environmental Equity

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is continually attempting to improve its approach to environmental protection. Traditionally, environmental programs at all levels of government have set broadly applicable standards for individual pollutants released by specific types of sources with the goal of protecting the environment and all people. Recognizing that not everyone is affected in the same ways by pollution, these standards have often been set to protect the most susceptible, such as asthmatics, children or pregnant women.

Environmental protection has progressed from this initial strategy to include risk-based priority setting. The EPA Science Advisory Board, in its report Reducing Risk: Setting Priorities and Strategies for Environmental Protection, urged EPA to target its environmental protection efforts based on the opportunities for reducing the most serious remaining risks (EPA, 1990). In response, EPA began to examine and target its efforts on those environmental problems which pose the greatest risks nationwide to human health and the environment, using comparative risk analyses to rank environmental problems according to severity. One approach EPA now employs to prioritize environmental efforts based on risk is geographic targeting, where attention is focused on the problems faced by individual cities or regions, such as the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico.

In the context of a risk-based approach to environmental management, the relative risk burden borne by low- income and racial minority communities is a special concern. A low-income community which is surrounded by multiple sources of air pollution, waste treatment facilities and landfills and which has lead-based paint in the residences is clearly a community that faces higher than average potential environmental risks. A racial or cultural group whose children commonly have harmful levels of lead in their blood is also living with a greater environmental risk. In addition, as a result of factors affecting health status, such communities may be more likely than the general population to experience disease or death due to a given level of exposure. Poor nutrition, smoking, inadequate health care and stress can all contribute to an increased rate of health effects at a given pollutant level. Hence, to the extent these communities are subject to these factors. They are also more likely to actually experience harm due to these exposures.

Issues such as these, and how government agencies respond, have come to be known today as issues of environmental equity. Environmental equity refers to the distribution of environmental risks across population groups and to our policy responses to these distributions. While there are many types of equity, all of which are important to EPA, the this report focuses on racial minority and low-income populations.

EPA has begun to assess how patterns of environmental problems converge on different places, how people who live in those places are affected and how environmental programs should be further refined to address identified differences. The causes of these differences are often complex and deeply rooted in historical patterns of commerce, geography, state and local land use decisions and other factors that affect where people live and work. With respect to some types of pollutants, race and income, however, appear to be correlated with these distributions.

Clearly, environmental equity is important to those who might bear high risks. But everyone has a stake in environmental equity because it results in better environmental protection generally. Environmental equity is an important goal in a democratic society. It involves ensuring that the benefits of environmental protection are available to all communities and an environmental policy-making process that allows the concerns of all communities to be heard, understood, and addressed.

The EPA Environmental Equity Workgroup

In response to a variety of concerns raised by EPA staff and the public, in July 1990, EPA Administrator William K. Reilly formed the EPA Environmental Equity Workgroup with staff from all EPA offices and regions across the Agency. The Workgroup was directed to assess the evidence that racial minority and low-income communities bear a higher environmental risk burden than the general population, and consider what EPA might do about any identified disparities.

This report to the Administrator reviews existing data on the distribution of environmental exposures and risks across population groups. It also summarizes the Workgroup's review of EPA programs with respect to racial minority and low income populations. Based on the findings from these analyses, the Workgroup makes initial recommendations. Because of the specific nature of the Workgroup's assignment, the report does not deal with other important related subjects, such as EPA's minority recruiting programs. It also does not repeat the work recently done by EPA's Minority Academic Institutions Taskforce (Final Action Plan completed in May, 1991) or the on-going work of EPA's Cultural Diversity Committee.

The report is intended to contribute to the national dialogue on environmental equity and to suggest further steps for EPA. It is an initial step in the Agency's response to environmental equity concerns. There is also much that we still need to learn, through both research and public debate.

Summary Of Findings

  • There are clear differences between racial groups in terms of disease and death rates. There are also limited data to explain the environmental contribution to these differences. In fact, there is a general lack of data on environmental health effects by race and income. For diseases that are known to have environmental causes, data are not typically dis-aggregated by race and socioeconomic group. The notable exception is lead poisoning: A significantly higher percentage of Black children compared to White children have unacceptably high blood lead levels.

  • Racial minority and low-income populations experience higher than average exposures to selected air pollutants, hazardous waste facilities, contaminated fish and agricultural pesticides in the workplace. Exposure does not always result in an immediate or acute health effect. High exposures, and the possibility of chronic effects, are nevertheless a clear cause for health concerns.

  • Environmental and health data are not routinely collected and analyzed by income and race. Nor are data routinely collected on health risks posed by multiple industrial facilities, cumulative and synergistic effects, or multiple and different pathways of exposure. Risk assessment and risk management procedures are not in themselves biased against certain income or racial groups. However, risk assessment and risk management procedures can be improved to better take into account equity considerations.

  • Great opportunities exist for EPA and other government agencies to improve communication about environmental problems with members of low-income and racial minority groups. The language, format and distribution of written materials, media relations, and efforts in two-way communication all can be improved. In addition, EPA can broaden the spectrum of groups with which it interacts.

  • Since they have broad contact with affected communities, EPA's program and regional offices are well suited to address equity concerns. The potential exists for effective action by such offices to address disproportionate risks. These offices currently vary considerably in terms of how they address environmental equity issues. Case studies of EPA program and regional offices reveal that opportunities exist for addressing environmental equity issues and that there is a need for environmental equity awareness training. A number of EPA regional offices have initiated projects to address high risks in racial minority and low-income communities.

  • Native Americans are a unique racial group that has a special relationship with the federal government and distinct environmental problems. Tribes often lack the physical infrastructure, institutions, trained personnel and resources necessary to protect their members.

Summary Of Recommendations

Although large gaps in data exist, the Workgroup believes that enough is known with sufficient certainty to make several recommendations to the Agency. These recommendations are also applicable to other public and private groups engaged in environmental protection activities. The job of achieving environmental equity is shared by everyone.

  • EPA should increase the priority that it gives to issues of environmental equity.

  • EPA should establish and maintain information which provides an objective basis for assessment of risks by income and race, beginning with the development of a research and data collection plan.

  • EPA should incorporate considerations of environmental equity into the risk assessment process. It should revise its risk assessment procedures to ensure, where practical and relevant, better characterization of risk across populations, communities or geographic areas. These revisions could be useful in determining whether there are any population groups at disproportionately high risk.

  • EPA should identify and target opportunities to reduce high concentrations of risk to specific population groups, employing approaches developed for geographic targeting.

  • EPA should, where appropriate, assess and consider the distribution of projected risk reduction in major rulemakings and Agency initiatives.

  • EPA should selectively review and revise its permit, grant, monitoring and enforcement procedures to address high concentrations of risk in racial minority and low- income communities. Since state and local governments have primary authority for many environmental programs, EPA should emphasize its concerns about environmental equity to them.

  • EPA should expand and improve the level and forms with which it communicates with racial minority and low-income communities and should increase efforts to involve them in environmental policy-making.

  • EPA should establish mechanisms, including a center of staff support, to ensure that environmental equity concerns are incorporated in its long-term planning and operations.

Structure Of This Report

This report presents the information collected by the Workgroup and its conclusions. It is an internal staff report from the Workgroup to the Administrator. The report reflects a variety of expertise and views from individuals and offices across the Agency. The Workgroup's central goals in producing this report were to: present an initial perspective and assessment of environmental equity issues; focus the attention of EPA officials and staff on environmental equity issues; and inform other government officials and the general public about these issues.

The report consists of two volumes: the main report and the supporting document. Chapter Two of the report describes the background, context, and assignment of the Workgroup and defines the issues examined in this report. Chapter Three presents the findings of the Workgroup. The Workgroup's recommendations are detailed in Chapter Four. Brief descriptions of existing and planned EPA projects addressing various environmental equity issues are provided at the end of this document.

Volume II presents more detailed information on some aspects of environmental equity and contains extensive references and a bibliography. Sections in Volume II are referenced throughout the main body of the text.

Finally, the main report was shared with a group of technical and policy experts for peer review. Although their comments could not be fully incorporated, we have included the reviewers' full comments and a summary in Volume II.