(CNSNews.com) - Government agencies received some guidance about their environmental justice policies Friday when the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights endorsed a report that conservatives said would create economic hardships for low-income and minority communities.
By endorsing the report, the commission signaled that federal agencies weren't fully implementing former President Bill Clinton's 1994 executive order mandating that they incorporate environment justice principles into their work.
The executive order sought to improve environmental decision-making by putting greater emphasis on the health of poor and minority citizens. Environmental justice policies are supposed to protect citizens from pollution by ensuring that all communities receive equal protection regardless of income or race.
But conservatives fear the commission's endorsement of the environment justice report plays into the hands of activists instead of looking out for the best interests of those communities. They also warn that it will limit business opportunities, thus harming the people it is supposed to protect.
Four commissioners - three Democrats and Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry - voted in favor of the report, while two Republicans - Jennifer C. Braceras and Peter N. Kirsanow - voted against it. Another Republican, Russell G. Redenbaugh, abstained. Abigail Thernstrom, the fourth Republican on the commission, did not vote.
Kirsanow, who grew up 100 yards from a steel plant in Cleveland, said he feared environmental activists had too much influence on the recommendations. He said the report didn't balance economic conditions and job growth with concerns about pollution.
"I'm not saying we should have a policy that forces people to choose between two bad options," Kirsanow said. "I'm saying that the concerns of the individuals in the locality need to be respected."
He recalled a debate in Louisiana where environmental activists successfully fought to keep a plastics factory out of the black community of Romeville, even though the plant would have created about 250 jobs.
Environmentalists, however, have a different perspective. Carlos Porras, executive director of the California-based Communities for a Better Environment, takes pride in his state's environmental justice efforts. He said there's no evidence that the policies hurt business.
"That is a myth," said Porras, who sits on the California Environmental Protection Agency's advisory council on environmental justice. "That is purely political rhetoric that is aligned with industry's resistance to implement appropriate technologies and health-protective measures. I don't buy it."
The four commissioners who voted in favor of the report, titled "Not in My Backyard," didn't return calls seeking comment. Prior to Friday's vote, however, Berry criticized the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Transportation and Department of Interior for not doing enough.
"The leadership at key federal agencies sometimes lacks commitment to ensuring that low-income communities and communities of color are treated fairly during the environmental decision-making process," Berry said in a statement. "As a result, the agencies do not incorporate environmental justice into their core missions, and existing programs are not evaluated."
The conservative black leadership network Project 21 has cited a host of reasons for low-income and minority communities to oppose the recommendations. The group's director, David Almasi, outlined them in an analysis for the National Center for Public Policy Research.
"The idea of environmental justice is perfectly sound," Almasi said. "You don't want to have a terrible, smoke-belching, cancer-causing factory in a minority neighborhood because they simply don't have the power to fight it.
"But when you look at the way our environmental regulations and overviews are approved, we don't have the kind of factories we had in the 1970s," Almasi added. "These factories can be economic powerhouses just as much as they can be manufacturing powerhouses."
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