Twenty years ago today, our nation took a significant step forward on the long road to securing a more just and equal nation. On February 11, 1994, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, requiring every federal agency to address environmental justice in low-income communities and communities of color. This order built on existing efforts by the administration, members of the legal community, environmentalists, advocates, and citizens at the time – as well as countless pioneers who had gone before – to remedy the health, safety, and economic consequences of environmental problems that disproportionately hurt historically disadvantaged communities.
Decades earlier, in the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. consistently spoke out about the prevalence of pollution in low-income neighborhoods; the proximity of hazardous facilities to communities of color; and the dangerous and deplorable working conditions for Americans of modest means. It was this work that brought him to Memphis, Tennessee, first in March of 1968 to lead African American sanitation workers in a strike – and then, several days later, to take part in a march with these workers that was scheduled for April 5th – a day he would not live to see.
In the years that followed, countless Americans have been inspired by Dr. King and others to speak out, to engage, and – thanks to important directives like President Clinton’s Executive Order – to bring about once-unimaginable progress. Yet, despite all that’s been achieved, research shows that low-income families and families of color are still more likely than other American families to find themselves living in communities with contaminated water and polluted soil. Their neighborhoods are still more likely to be close to industrial waste sites and more vulnerable to the placement of landfills nearby.
That’s why the Department of Justice remains committed to advancing the aims of President Clinton’s Executive Order, and integrating environmental justice principles into its everyday work and mission. Many examples of how the Department has moved, in recent years, to reinforce and bolster the objectives of the Executive Order can be found in our third Implementation Progress Report on Environmental Justice, which we are releasing today. From working collaboratively with our client agencies to ensure that environmental justice is a part of government decision-making; to participating in dialogues with government agencies, grassroots environmental advocates, industry representatives, and tribal governments on environmental justice issues; to promoting the effective use of civil rights statutes, particularly Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in tandem with federal environmental laws to secure the goals of the Executive Order, we are acting on our resolute commitment to addressing environmental, socioeconomic, and racial inequities wherever they exist. As the report also details, we have achieved demonstrable benefits and effective legal remedies for vulnerable populations that have been adversely impacted by violations of environmental laws. But this work is only the beginning.
All Americans can be proud of, and encouraged by, the progress that has been made in recent years. But there’s no denying that a great deal of work remains before us. For as long as I have the honor of serving as Attorney General, the Department of Justice will continue to prioritize environmental protection. And I am confident that, by working closely with key federal partners and other stakeholders across America, we will be able to keep building on past successes, advancing shared goals, and realizing the promise of environmental justice.