EAST LIVERPOOL, Ohio – When President Bill Clinton deemed environmental justice an administration priority 21 years ago, Alonzo Spencer felt an odd sensation: optimism.
The steel-mill crane operator could stand on the grounds of the neighborhood elementary school and see why such protections mattered. Down a valley less than 400 yards from the East Elementary School, hugging the banks of the Ohio River, a hazardous waste incinerator belched smoke, fumes and flares into the air.
Spencer and a core of fellow activists had fought what was then the Waste Technology Industries incinerator ever since it was proposed it in the early 1980s.
They were still fighting when it opened in 1993. So Spencer was heartened a year later when Clinton decreed that each federal agency “shall make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing …disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects” on minority and low-income communities.
More than 10 years later, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated a neighborhood near the incinerator a “potential environmental justice area.”
People here took this as a sign that someone would come to their rescue. No one has. Now, many see Clinton’s Executive Order 12898 and the EPA’s environmental-justice designation as little more than an empty promise.
“We fit the designation as an environmental justice community and all that it entails,” said Spencer, president of a group called Save Our County. “But there are conditions that went along with that, and they’ve never been implemented… [We are] still being poisoned by the emissions from the facility, and we’re still suffering.”
An EPA official told the Center for Public Integrity that the environmental justice label doesn’t require the agency to take special action in communities such as East Liverpool. It merely serves as an internal screening tool to help officials identify potentially vulnerable areas.
“I think a lot of times what people are looking for is something that’s just not there,” said Matthew Tejada, enforcement director in the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice. “I think a lot of times, folks wish that we had an actual [environmental justice] statute on the books that would say ‘If X happens, you do Y,’… and we don’t have that."
The East Liverpool example shows the hollowness of the government’s environmental-justice pledge, said Stephen Lester, science director for the nonprofit Center for Health, Environment and Justice. Spencer serves on the CHEJ board.
“They haven’t received any kind of attention from the agency as a result of that [designation],” Lester said of East Liverpool residents. “The EPA at the time went through that elaborate process. It’s nice they did that, but what did the agency do when it comes to that conclusion? And that’s the question we’ve been asking.”
Save Our County members reached out to the EPA’s widely criticized Office of Civil Rights about a year ago, Spencer said. “We couldn’t get anyone that would help us within the organization,” he said. “The contacts we had wouldn’t answer our phone calls or our letters or our emails.”
In a statement, the EPA said it could neither “confirm nor deny” Spencer’s claim. “We can confirm that, as of today, [the Office of Civil Rights] does not have any pending matter involving East Liverpool, Ohio.”