The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created in December 1970 under President Richard M. Nixon. From the very beginning, EPA's ten regions were set up as nearly autonomous sub-agencies. President Barack Obama made a bold move this year by selecting Lisa P. Jackson, the first African American to head the EPA. Now the president is set to select EPA regional administrators--ten important and powerful posts that can reshape the agency which suffered severe setbacks under President George W. Bush.Having Jackson, an African American woman who grew up in New Orleans, at the helm of EPA is historic. However, having a black head at EPA headquarters in Washington, DC is not sufficient. Fundamental change is needed in the regions, especially regions where states have a legacy of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and resistance to civil rights and equal environmental protection under the law, such as Region 4, eight states in the Deep South (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee).
The 2007 United Church of Christ Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty report found glaring disparities in the location of commercial hazardous wastes facilities. Nationally, people of color make up about one third of the nation's population and more than 56 percent of the residents living in neighborhoods within two miles of commercial hazardous waste facilities. They also make up more than two-thirds (69%) of the residents in neighborhoods with clustered facilities. Forty of 44 states (90%) with hazardous waste facilities have disproportionately high percentages of people of color in host neighborhoods--on average about two times greater than the percentages in non-host areas (44% vs. 23%).
Nine out of ten EPA regions have racial disparities in the location of hazardous waste facilities. People of color comprise 28.5 percent of Region 4. However, people of color comprise the majority of residents living within two miles of the 67 commercial hazardous waste facilities in Alabama (66.3%), Florida (52.7%), Georgia (55.6%), Kentucky (51.5%), Mississippi (50.6%), North Carolina (55.9%), South Carolina (43.9), and Tennessee (53.8%).
After nearly four decades, all of the Region 4 administrators have been white. None of the Region 4 administrators, under Democrats and Republicans, have adequately addressed legacy issues such as environmental racism, unequal protection, and policies and decisions that adversely and disproportionately impact African Americans and other people of color in the region.
According to a recent article in Earth Times, several names have been floated as possible picks as Region 4 administrator: Acting Region 4 Administrator Stanley Meiburg; acting Deputy Administrator Beverly Banister; Russell Wright, assistant administrator of Region 4's Office of Policy and Management; John Hankinson, former Region 4 administrator in the Clinton administration; and Jim Powell, a former senior official with the Energy Department who retired in 2007. Bannister and Wright are African American.
Historically, regional administrators have served as a bridge between EPA headquarters and the state and local governments. While on the surface this traditional role may be appealing to state and local government officials who would move the center of power and authority away from Washington, DC to regional offices, it has been a disaster for African Americans in Region 4. A long string of bad decisions have turned far too many black communities into the dumping grounds, lowering nearby residents' property values (stealing their wealth), and exposing them to unnecessary environmental health risks. Prime examples of these harmful EPA Region 4 state collaborations include permitting of waste facilities and clean-up of toxic contamination.
African Americans make up 21 percent of the population in Region 4. Except for Florida, African Americans comprise the largest ethnic minority in the region. Hispanics make up 20.1 percent of Florida's population compared to 15.3 percent African Americans. African Americans comprise 26.3 percent in Alabama, 29.6 percent in Georgia, 7.6 percent in Kentucky, 37.1 percent in Mississippi, 21.3 percent in North Carolina, 28.6 percent in South Carolina, and 16.6 percent in Tennessee.
Many of the bad facility siting and permitting decisions result directly from deals and compromises made between Region 4 and state and local governments--often at the expense of and over the opposition of African American residents. It is no accident that the modern civil rights movement and the environmental justice movement were born in the South. The glaring inequities that exist in the regions should not exist. We need one EPA--not 10 autonomous fiefdoms that dispense "separate and unequal" environmental protection for rich and poor and for people of color and whites. We need EPA regional administrators that will apply the rules equally to all Americans, regardless of race, status, or region. We've never had this before. Now this would be radical change we all could believe in and live with.