(Beyond Pesticides, December 20, 2021) Despite a high-profile tour of communities affected by toxic chemicals by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan, EPA still fails to make connections that could help protect against poisoning of workers, fenceline communities, and others. For example, as Mr. Regan, in November, visited Houston, Texas, where thousands of residents are suing Union Pacific Railroad Company for contaminating their properties with highly hazardous creosote wood preservatives, EPA is in the process of reauthorizing creosote use for another 15 years with the knowledge that it is virtually impossible to produce and use without causing contamination and poisoning.
Environmental justice issues arise at every stage of the cradle-to-grave life cycle of toxic chemicals, from production, transportation, handling, and use, to disposal. Petroleum refineries are likely to be sited near poor communities composed of people of color. Mines contaminate tribal lands and poor rural communities. Manufacturing facilities are also located near low-income neighborhoods, employing their inhabitants in hazardous jobs. Pesticides are applied by farmworkers whose housing is surrounded by poisoned fields. And, coming full circle, hazardous waste “disposal” sites are surrounded by low-income communities.
In April, Mr. Regan directed all EPA offices to clearly integrate environmental justice considerations into their plans and actions, saying, “Too many communities whose residents are predominantly of color, Indigenous, or low-income continue to suffer from disproportionately high pollution levels and the resulting adverse health and environmental impacts. We must do better. This will be one of my top priorities as Administrator, and I expect it to be one of yours as well.” This effort follows President Biden’s Executive Order, Modernizing Regulatory Review (January 20, 2021), which mandates the adoption of agency policy across government to seriously and with urgency confront disproportionate harm to people of color communities (environmental racism) with the directive to “forward health, racial equity, and environmental stewardship.”
If environmental justice were truly integrated into all of EPA’s programs, the agency would scrutinize use patterns, evaluate the “reasonableness” of hazards and harm in the context of available alternatives, and prohibit continued sales and use—which drive the cradle-to-grave cycle—of toxic pesticides. The Office of Pesticide Programs would be transformed into a program for transitioning farmers and others addicted to pesticides to organic management practices. Instead of reducing the cost to manufacturers of registering pesticides, EPA would incrementally increase the cost of registration each year to pay for the transition to organic practices.