EPA works to remake troubled Office of Civil Rights

A 2015 Center investigation found that the office had never made a formal finding of discrimination in 22 years

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

John Brecher/NBC News

In the waning months of the Obama administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights took modest steps toward repairing its tattered image.

The office, which investigates complaints from communities alleging environmental racism, issued new manuals to govern how cases are handled, delivered a strong rebuke to a state environmental agency and rescinded a proposed rule that would have removed deadlines for resolving cases.

It would be easy to consider the flurry of activity a tacit commentary on the incoming Trump administration, but many of the changes have been in the works for months or even years. The timing was merely coincidental.

In eight years under Obama, the EPA “took steps that would lead to civil-rights compliance in the long run,” said Marianne Engelman Lado, visiting clinical professor of law at Yale Law School and a former attorney with the public-interest law firm Earthjustice, which lodged several complaints with the office on behalf of minority communities alleging discrimination. “But we may be waiting for our grandchildren before meaningful enforcement [occurs].”

A Center for Public Integrity investigation in 2015 revealed the office’s lackluster enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The analysis showed that the office hadn’t made a formal finding of discrimination in 22 years, despite having received hundreds of complaints. Last year, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights cited the Center’s work in a performance review that found the EPA was failing to meet its obligations under the act.

The EPA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Among the agency's recent actions: releases of a strategic plan to guide the civil-rights office, a first-ever case-resolution manual for investigators and a compliance toolkit for state agencies that receive federal funding. The EPA also did away with a common defense used by agencies named in complaints, saying adherence to environmental laws would not shield them from civil-rights challenges.

On Jan. 9, the EPA withdrew a proposed rule that would have removed statutory deadlines for resolution of complaints. The move would have brought the EPA in line with other federal agencies, but civil-rights advocates feared a lack of deadlines would make it harder to hold the EPA accountable.

On Jan. 12, the EPA issued a letter expressing “deep concern” that the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality discriminated against people of color by failing to adequately regulate massive hog farms. The letter, which urges state officials to correct deficiencies even before the civil-rights investigation is completed, represents a bold move by the EPA, Engelman Lado said.

In December, the EPA decreed that its Office of General Counsel would begin handling discrimination complaints filed on behalf of communities like Uniontown, Alabama, leaving the Office of Civil Rights to field complaints only from inside the agency. Engelman Lado said it remains to be seen whether civil-rights investigators will be free to do their jobs while housed in the office responsible for defending the EPA in litigation. 

All the recent changes have come under office director Lilian Dorka, who succeeded Velveta Golightly-Howell in June 2016. Dorka had been the office’s deputy director since 2014.

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