Clinton to support new civil rights proposal

Copyright 1998 The Detroit News
April 21, 1998

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton this week plans to endorse a sweeping proposal that makes inner-city pollution a civil rights offense.

The dramatic interpretation of civil rights has been developed quietly by the Environmental Protection Agency and already is sparking intense opposition from state and local officials across the country, as well as a wide spectrum of businesses and conservative groups.

Clinton is expected to add his support to the "environmental justice" plan in an Earth Day speech Wednesday in West Virginia, The Detroit News has learned.

The EPA proposal "will end development in Detroit," said Russ Harding, head of Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality, which would enforce the policy.

Last month, Harding led state environmental regulators in a call on the EPA to withdraw the "unworkable" proposal.

All businesses that must have state or local approval for solid waste, air emissions or water pollution would be affected.

Each time a plastic molding plant adds new machinery or an auto assembly plant revamps its paint shop or a dry cleaner changes the chemicals it uses, the EPA proposal would come into effect.

Every time a pollution permit is altered, updated, renewed or newly issued, civil rights considerations would have to be taken into account.

If the pollution has a "disproportionate impact" on minorities, states could be required to revoke a company's permits under a civil rights claim.

A major problem state officials, small-business owners and large industrial corporations foresee is the absence of a firm definition of "disproportionate impact" under the EPA regulation.

And examining the civil rights issues raised by pollution in industrialized cities would cost billions of dollars, according to industry groups. Not just money is at issue for businesses that could face long bureaucratic delays with new plants and new technology needed to keep up with global competitors.

"Anything that makes getting our air permits harder is going to be a really big deal," said Dave Muck, a manager at the Commonwealth Industries plant in Detroit. "They're key for us to operate."

Plans to pump billions of taxpayer dollars into the economies of America's large cities may be undermined, too.

Empowerment zones that give tax breaks to businesses that locate in poor areas could lose much of their appeal if environmental regulations get far tougher.

Brownfield programs designed to encourage development of abandoned industrial land also would be threatened by the environmental justice proposal, critics say.

Details of the EPA's push to tie pollution and civil rights recently emerged after five years of complaints from inner-city residents about environmental hazards.

The idea has been gaining ground in Washington since Clinton signed an executive order requiring all federal agencies take the issue into account in their programs.

State regulators were deliberately shut out of the plans, EPA documents obtained by The News show, because they "might slow down the process."

Environmental activists advising the EPA don't deny the impact of this proposal.

"Maybe the answer is they can't build any more factories in Detroit," said Luke Cole, head of the EPA's National Environmental Justice Advisory Committee.

Confidential EPA documents further acknowledge the government's awareness of potential damage to industrial development.

Depending on how the regulations are carried out, "areas already having several permitted facilities would have great difficulty justifying the addition of another one, regardless of its relatively benign character," noted an EPA memo to the Justice Department's civil rights office.

Still, the environmental justice proposal is not a federal "regulation" in the legal sense.

The proposal was issued as a "guidance," which means the EPA can put it into effect immediately, before the public had a chance to voice concerns. The proposal, documents show, further designed to avoid requirements enacted by the GOP-led Congress that require agencies to perform a cost-benefit analysis on new regulations.

"It's disturbing that the EPA is skirting the law," said David Littmann, chief economist for Comerica Bank.

Tim O'Brien, Ford's director of environmental quality, said the EPA push, "could significantly extend an already costly and lengthy process without any significant improvement in the environmental outcome."

Industry experts and EPA documents note the specter of complaints "may discourage facilities from seeking modifications (to their permits), even if the modification would reduce overall emissions or discharge."

Other EPA documents show nonenvironmental issues would play a large role in the EPA's analysis of civil rights claims.

A draft memo from William Early, chairman of the EPA task force that designed the proposal, argues that the EPA should consider a "broad range" of nonenvironmental issues, including "social and cultural impacts, psychological issues and stigma."

In addition, a significant change from past policy is that companies would be increasingly responsible for the effects of other companies' pollution under a standard called "cumulative impact."

Industry groups are also concerned about the possibility that unfounded concerns from local groups could derail a permit. One internal EPA memo argues that if that issue arises, "community fears, even if believed to be unfounded, should be counted at some level."

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