Environmental groups from across the Northwest are protesting cutbacks and changes taking place in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regional Office of Civil Rights and Environmental Justice.
Programs operated by the office help ensure fair treatment for people who are often most affected by pollution, namely low-income residents and minorities. The office responsible for Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Alaska is already the smallest of EPA’s 10 regional offices, according to research conducted by Yalonda Sinde, with the Seattle-based Community Coalition for Environmental Justice.
The three staff members working for EPA’s regional Office of Civil Rights and Environmental Justice are now being moved to different departments within EPA and two of the officials will be scaling back the time they devote to this type of work, said Sinde, who discussed her concerns with top EPA officials Thursday. Only one employee will now be devoted full time to the work, she said.
“I cannot believe they’re doing this in a region that has gone for so long with so little,” Sinde said. “We actually need more resources for a functional environmental justice office.”
The changes are part of ongoing staff cuts and reorganization at the agency, but they will not diminish the importance of environmental justice or civil rights issues, said Michelle Pirzadeh, the region’s acting deputy regional administrator. The four-state region has lost 17 staff positions to budget cuts since 2001. Another 12 positions are expected to be cut in fiscal year 2007 – resulting in a 5 percent staff reduction in five years, Pirzadeh said.
“We have taken reductions across most of our major programs,” she added.
The three staff members are being shifted to different offices, but Pirzadeh insisted the agency was not cutting the program. “Same amount of resources, different place,” she said. The director of the office will now be working out of the Office of Ecosystem, Tribal and Public Affairs.
Environmentalists say the office has effectively been gutshot. They worry it’s a preview of the priorities of the region’s new administrator, Elin Miller, who took office Monday. Miller has previously served in environmental oversight positions for the state of California, but from 1996 to 2004 she served in various high level executive posts for Dow Chemical, according to information posted on the EPA’s Web site.
Barbara Miller, director of the Silver Valley Community Resource Center, in Kellogg traveled to Seattle Monday to protest the changes. Miller, who has fought for years to push for a cleanup of hazardous mine waste, said the reorganization only deepens her suspicions that EPA actions are increasingly governed by business interests, rather than protecting the nation’s most vulnerable residents from pollution.
“We need that office,” Miller said. “A lack of environmental justice and civil rights is what all this boils down to.”
BJ Cummings, with the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, said the EPA’s Environmental Justice office recently helped provide Spanish translation during public hearings over a cleanup in a Seattle neighborhood that’s 40 percent Latino.
“They helped us navigate the system,” Cummings said.
Cummings said the program is particularly important in the Northwest, which is home to dozens of tribes, many poor farmworkers and some of the nation’s largest polluted sites, including the Silver Valley and the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
“We really need a ramping up of the program,” Cummings said.