EPA begins 'wholesale attempt' to fix much-criticized Office of Civil Rights

Center investigation revealed the office has largely failed at its mission

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View looking east from the summit of Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown, Alabama. This image is composited from several frames.

John Brecher/NBC News

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights plans to eliminate several statutory deadlines in an effort to respond more nimbly to complaints and bring the office in line with its counterparts at other federal agencies.

A Notice of Proposed Rulemaking released Tuesday would remove deadlines that require the EPA to decide within 20 days whether to accept a complaint for investigation and allow it another 180 days to complete an inquiry. It also would give the agency discretion to require compliance reports from the subjects of those complaints: recipients of EPA funding such as states and cities.

“This is part of a wholesale attempt to lay a new foundation when it comes to the [civil-rights] office,” said Lou Pieh, deputy chief of staff for EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

The office, responsible for investigating environmental-discrimination claims filed by communities of color under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, has largely failed at its mission, according to a Center for Public Integrity investigation. It also processes discrimination complaints lodged by EPA employees.

Of more than 20 federal agencies it surveyed, the EPA said it is the only one that has self-imposed deadlines for processing civil rights complaints.  Instead of setting explicit deadlines, the new regulations will require the agency to “promptly” acknowledge complaints and issue decisions.

The change, the EPA said in the rulemaking, will allow the office to “explore the best resolution option for those complaints . . .  rather than a cookie-cutter approach that assumes all cases should follow the same approach, resolution strategy, and timeframes.”

The agency is being sued by five community groups over its failure to finish investigating several civil rights claims pending for at least a decade. Critics have expressed concern about the potential elimination of the deadlines, claiming that could make it harder to hold the agency accountable.

Not so, Pieh said.

“We don’t see this as an out,” said Pieh, who serves as a liaison between McCarthy and the civil-rights office. “We are not skirting our responsibility with reference to civil rights laws.”

The Center reported in August that the EPA has dismissed 95 percent of all community claims alleging environmental discrimination since the mid-1990s without providing any remedies to complainants. The series, “Environmental Justice, Denied,” examined how the EPA’s lax enforcement of Title VI has impacted communities across the country, some of which have waited years for the agency to act.

“We can acknowledge that not everything has been perfect in the past,” Pieh said. But the proposed rule, combined with a Strategic Plan released in September, “will allow us to turn the corner,” he said.

The civil-rights office is also training staffers on a new case-management database it will use to track the progress of cases throughout the investigation process.

On Tuesday the agency released an interim case resolution manual to guide investigators’ handling of civil rights complaints. For example, staffers are encouraged to decide within 45 days whether to accept a case for further investigation and to attempt to informally resolve the case within 90 days. If no resolution is reached, a formal investigation would then proceed, according to the manual.

In January, the EPA will hold public meetings in Chicago; Houston; Oakland, Calif.; Washington, D.C.; and North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park as part of the 60-day public comment period on the proposed rule.

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