Three years into Lisa Jackson’s tenure as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than a dozen formal complaints alleging air pollution is disproportionately harming low-income, minority communities remain unresolved. Each of these complaints has languished — in some instances, for more than a decade — in the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights despite Jackson’s stated commitment to environmental justice.
“We must include environmental justice principles in all of our decisions … especially with regard to children,” Jackson wrote in a January 2010 memo outlining the agency’s top priorities.
But EPA documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News and interviews with activists and residents reveal that the administrator’s words have brought little relief to underprivileged communities overburdened with pollution.
The Office of Civil Rights — whose leader reports directly to Jackson — has in its files a total of 38 unresolved complaints dating to July 1994, according to a list published on the office’s website following a Freedom of Information Act request from iWatch News. Fifteen of these OCR complaints involve air pollution.
The EPA did not explain why so many cases remain unresolved. However, a spokeswoman said in an email that “the Agency has made meaningful progress on many of the complaints that remain on its docket.”
Environmental justice advocates are dubious. “The backlog doesn’t seem greatly improved, and it’s not clear what processes they use to evaluate the complaints” said Marianne Engelman Lado, a lawyer at Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm. “Why is that progress?”
Rafael DeLeon, the head of the Office of Civil Rights, did not respond to reqests for an interview. Jackson has also not responded to multiple interview requests for iWatch News’ and NPR’s Poisoned Places series.