Environmental Justice, Denied

Environmental Justice, Denied

Organisation: The Center for Public Integrity (United States)

Publication Date: 04/07/2016


Size of team/newsroom:large


At the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Civil Rights has one core mission: to ensure that entities receiving EPA funding do not discriminate against communities straddling industry fencelines. Yet time and again, communities of color living in the shadows of sewage plants, incinerators and landfills have found their claims of harm denied or ignored by the EPA’s civil-rights office, a first-ever analysis by the Center for Public Integrity shows. In its 22-year history, the office has never made a formal finding of a civil-rights violation by regulatory agencies or companies operating in U.S. communities. “Environmental Justice, Denied” documented just how far the EPA has strayed from a mission borne from Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, a sweeping law prohibiting racial discrimination by those receiving federal financial assistance. Over a year, Center reporters examined thousands of pages of documents detailing every Title VI complaint submitted to the EPA’s civil-rights office, and every resolution of those complaints from 1996 to mid-2013. The Center’s nine-month investigation, combining data analysis with ground-level reporting in Louisiana, Alabama, California, New York, New Mexico and Ohio, examined the siting of malodorous dumps near the homes of African Americans, the spraying of toxic pesticides near schools attended by Latino students, and other environmental hazards disproportionately affecting minorities. It featured an interactive graphic built from an original database of 265 civil-rights claims filed by residents across the U.S. since the 1990s. Public documents, obtained through a Center Freedom of Information Act request, reveal striking patterns: • Ninety-five percent of the time, the EPA either rejected or dismissed Title VI complaints. • While touting the importance of tackling environmental racism, the agency closed just 12 cases alleging discrimination with official action. That’s less than one per year. • At least 17 communities remain in limbo — some waiting more than a decade — as the EPA reviews claims. Delays left residents without recourse. • In cases dismissed as “moot” — nine over 17 years, or 4 percent — the EPA took, on average, 254 days just to decide whether or not to pursue an investigation. On August 17, 2015, within days of the project’s first published installments, the EPA promised to produce an annual report on reforming the civil-rights office, beginning in 2016. By September, the EPA released a draft strategic plan aimed at improving its civil-rights office, including solutions, laid out by a Center report, for turning around its Title VI enforcement record. By December, the agency had launched its deepest bid yet to revamp the program, issuing a notice of proposed rulemaking and a case manual for investigators. In additional to wide-ranging national media coverage of the project, calls and emails from citizens and advocates poured in.

What makes this project innovative? What was its impact?

The biggest challenge was getting answers from the EPA. But even after the Center received EPA records responding to our FOIA requests, reporters had the tedious job of sifting through and making sense of thousands of pages of documents detailing 10 years’ worth of Title VI complaints, and resolutions of those complaints. It took six months for reporters to build an original database of 265 civil-rights claims filed by residents across the country from 1996 to mid-2013. Center developers uploaded these records — more than 500 in total — to Document Cloud and linked to each in a published spreadsheet, making this unique database and the case records accessible for the public. Yet Center reporters did not just rely on our first-ever data analysis. We built upon that analysis with old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting, traveling to six states, interviewing those who filed complaints, and digging deeper into their environmental-discrimination claims. We strove to put a human face on the true victims of the EPA’s failure to live up to its civil-rights mandate. While media outlets have written occasional stories on individual civil-rights cases pending before the EPA, we’re aware of no other that has tackled this issue as broadly. We believe “Environmental Justice, Denied” represents some of the most exhaustive reporting ever produced on the EPA’s lackluster record of enforcing civil-rights law.

Technologies used for this project:

We built an electronic database by manually entering information from scanned Title VI complaints and determination letters issued by the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights between 1996 and 2013, all of which the agency provided in response to our FOIA requests. We used Microsoft Excel for the data analysis. Center reporters cross-referenced the documents they received from the EPA to the agency’s online list of Title VI cases and identified missing civil-rights cases, inaccurate dates and other discrepancies. In some instances, the Center received Title VI complaints with case numbers that weren’t listed on the EPA’s website. In others, the EPA reported cases as pending online, even though the Center had documents indicating these cases had been resolved. In still others, the EPA reported receiving cases days or weeks before they were actually filed. We sought to standardize the data to make the records we received as accurate and complete as possible. We entered into our database case information gleaned from more than 500 documents provided by the EPA. If these cases were missing data or their final outcomes were previously published by the EPA, we included the published information. When information in the EPA’s list differed from the information we had in our paper files, we went with our own documents. Additionally, when calculating how long complaints took to wind through the review process, the Center omitted those that were pending, so as not to skew the results. PROJECT TEAM Kristen Lombardi, Talia Buford, Ronnie Greene, Yue Qiu and Jim Morris
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