Murmurs of change at the troubled EPA civil-rights office

A Center investigation showed how environmental discrimination complaints in the U.S. go nowhere

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The Center told you last month about the Environmental Protection Agency’s laggard Office of Civil Rights, which hasn’t made a formal finding of environmental discrimination in more than two decades of fielding complaints from communities of color.

A complainant from Syracuse, New York, summed up her feelings for one of our reporters: “What did the agency do for us? They didn’t do shit for us.”

In recent weeks, the EPA has made encouraging noises about dragging the office into some semblance of functionality. Next year, it plans to begin issuing an annual progress report.

A five-year strategic plan unveiled last week commits the agency to more rigorous reviews of recipients of EPA funding – from the city of Baton Rouge to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management – to ensure they comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

All of this is aimed at building, as office director Velveta Golightly-Howell put it, “a model civil rights program.”

The timing of these moves, coming immediately after the Center’s six-part series, “Environmental Justice, Denied,” may be purely coincidental. To be sure, others had pointed out flaws in the program years before we published. Still, our investigation highlighted systemic problems with an unprecedented level of detail, making them impossible to ignore.

We intend to stay on the story.

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