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Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the White House Forum on Environmental Justice


United States

Thank you, Roger [Kim], for your kind words and, more importantly, for your leadership of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network – a critical partner in strengthening government efforts to help minority and low-income communities achieve environmental, as well as social, justice.

I also want to thank Nancy [Sutley] and Administrator [Lisa] Jackson for hosting this important conference – and for inviting me, as well as Assistant Attorney General Ignacia Moreno and Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez, to participate.

As the leaders, respectively, of the Justice Department’s Environmental and Natural Resources and Civil Rights Divisions, Ignacia and Tom have inspired their teams – as well as their colleagues across the Department – to make certain that environmental justice efforts are a top priority.  Many of you are already working closely with Ignacia and Tom.  And I know that everyone here today will benefit from their perspectives and expertise.

Finally, I want to thank each of you for your participation in this forum – and for your partnership in meeting the environmental justice goals that we share.  The contributions that you are providing – in states and municipalities; in tribal governments and federal agencies; in the non-profit sector and academic communities – are leading the way toward a new chapter in our nation’s environmental justice history. 

Not only are you helping to drive breakthrough changes, you are finding new ways to strengthen collaboration – the key strategy, I believe, in creating and maintaining healthy, sustainable communities.

In a few minutes, you will hear from Ignacia and Tom about some of the specific ways that the Justice Department is working to advance our environmental justice mission.  And I want all of you to know that – at every level of the Department, and across all 94 United States Attorneys’ Office – this work is a top priority.

For me, it is also a personal calling.  One of my great honors, as Attorney General, is the opportunity to extend and expand the work that my late sister-in-law, Vivian Malone Jones, began decades ago.  In 1963, she was one of two black students who stepped past Governor George Wallace to integrate the University of Alabama.  In 1965, she became the University’s first black graduate.  And she soon moved here to Washington, where she spent her entire career in public service.  Her first job was in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.  And she ended her career at the Environmental Protection Agency, where she served as its very first Director of Environmental Justice.

Vivian, like all of you, refused to accept the fact that our nation’s environmental problems and threats were being heaped disproportionately on America’s most vulnerable communities.  And, like all of you, she was unwilling to sit on the sidelines when there were needs to be met and wrongs to be righted.

Of course, we can all be proud of – and encouraged by – the progress that has been made in recent decades.   Our nation has taken critical steps to protect our water, air, land, endangered and protected species, and natural resources.  We have improved public health and worker safety.  And we have made critical strides in securing nuclear power facilities and ensuring the clean up of hazardous waste sites.

Along the way, we have learned that Title VI and the National Environmental Policy Act are powerful tools in our ongoing struggle.  And, today, we are seeing that the Justice Department’s Environmental Justice Initiative has the potential to transform lives and strengthen communities – work that you will hear more about in just a few minutes.

However, despite all the good work being done and the advancements that have been made, we have not come far enough.  Today, minority and low-income families are the most likely Americans to live near hazardous industrial pollution sites or to have a landfill proposed in their community.  Their neighborhoods are more likely to have polluted water and soil.  Their children are more likely to breathe polluted air and suffer from asthma. 

This is unacceptable.  And it is unconscionable.  But through the aggressive enforcement of federal environmental laws in every community, I believe we can – and I know we must – change the status quo.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – a father of our nation’s environmental justice movement – may have put it best when he declared that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

That’s why the Justice Department has integrated our environmental justice goals into all of our enforcement efforts and comprehensive strategic plans.  And that’s why I have called on every U.S. Attorney’s Office to do the same – and to start thinking about environmental justice as a civil rights issue.  By examining environmental requirements in conjunction with our civil rights laws, I am confident that we can do a better job of ensuring fairness, advancing justice, and making certain that the most vulnerable among us are not left out, left behind, and left to suffer disproportionately.

Every one in this room is in a unique position to contribute to this work – and to help combat the threat, and devastating consequences, of environmental injustice. 

So, as you listen to this panel and participate in today’s discussion, I ask you to think about the specific ways that you can take action in pursuit of the goals that we share.  And I urge you to consider ways that you can carry on the efforts of Dr. King and Vivian Malone Jones.

Together, I believe that we can build a future that lives up to their vision and is worthy of future generations.  In this work, government leaders are relying on you.  And we will continue to look for ways to support you and to collaborate with you. 

In our nation’s ongoing struggle to ensure environmental justice, I am proud to count you all as partners.  And I look forward to what we can – and will – accomplish together.

Thank you.

Updated August 19, 2015