EPA annual report to examine improvements in civil rights office

Center series showed 95 percent of complaints dismissed by agency



Esther Calhoun sits outside her home in Uniontown, Alabama, the site of a pending EPA Office of Civil Rights case.

John Brecher/NBC News

The EPA Office of Civil Rights will begin publishing an annual report on progress toward improving its performance, according to a blog post.

In the post, published Monday, EPA Acting Deputy Administrator Stan Meiburg acknowledged that the EPA’s civil rights compliance program has “faced challenges in the past,” but that it is “committed to systematically changing the way it approaches complaints.”

The Center for Public Integrity recently published “Environmental Justice, Denied,” a seven-part series examining the EPA’s civil rights record and the agency’s failure to issue a single formal discrimination finding in the history of the office. The office has rejected 95 percent of the hundreds of complaints it has received.

The EPA’s Office of Civil Rights is charged with investigating complaints of discrimination filed against state and local agencies that receive EPA funds and, upon unearthing evidence of injustice, making things right.

The last story, published Thursday, focused on suggestions for improving the beleaguered office.

In the blog, Meiburg detailed a series of measures hoped to improve operations, including increasing engagement and partnerships with recipients of EPA funding so it can “address potential discrimination before it becomes a real challenge for communities.”

It will also work with communities to ensure they understand their rights and how to file a discrimination complaint.

“By working with communities from the beginning, we can help make sure their concerns are directed to where they can best be resolved, and to strengthen transparency and accountability,” Meiburg wrote.

Beginning in 2016, Meiburg said, the office will “publish an annual report to keep the public apprised of the office’s progress” on those efforts.

The EPA did not respond immediately to requests for comment or more details on the report.

Velveta Golightly-Howell, who heads the civil rights office, made no mention of the planned report during a June interview with the Center and NBC News. The office also declined repeated offers to comment on the findings of the series earlier this week.

EPA’s report won’t be the only assessment of the agency’s Office of Civil Rights in 2016.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, an independent, bipartisan agency that advises the president and Congress on civil rights issues, announced in July that its 2016 report will focus on environmental justice, including EPA’s enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Executive Order 12898, which requires agencies to consider the health and environmental effects of their programs on minority and low-income communities.

The report will focus primarily on “possible violations of environmental and civil rights laws resulting from improper generation, storage, transfer and siting of toxic materials by public utilities and other sources near minority residential areas.”

The commission declined to comment further on the investigation, noting that it was still in the early stages. But in a press release, said the upcoming report would also examine EPA’s handling of coal ash storage and hydraulic fracturing. One of the pending cases the Center profiled in its series involves a sprawling municipal landfill in Alabama that accepts coal ash and other waste from around the nation. The civil rights office has launched an investigation into the 2013 complaint, but has yet to issue a decision.

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