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EPA Vows Renewed Focus on Latino Communities

Image: Colorado Farm Suffers As Immigrant Workforce Diminishes

Mexican migrant workers harvest organic parsley at Grant Family Farms on October 11, 2011 in Wellington, Colorado. Latino environmental advocates worry about Hispanic farm workers in farms that do use pesticides. The Obama Administration has called on agencies to renew an order by Pres. Bill Clinton to address disparities in environmental contamination in minority and low-income communities. John Moore / Getty Images

For years, the group Mujeres de la Tierra (Women of the Earth) has kept an eye on the very large Inglewood oilfield in Los Angeles and tracked its effect on the predominantly Latino communities nearby. In Hazleton, Pa., the Environmental Integrity Project has launched a campaign to warn Latino immigrants about their vulnerability to the pollution from coal plant waste. And last week, the United Farm Workers pushed for stronger language in proposed rules on pesticide exposure information.

These groups' longstanding environmental concerns are the sort that the Obama administration vows to address in a second-term effort to give priority to environmental justice.

On Wednesday, the EPA will commemorate two decades since former President Bill Clinton issued an executive order calling on agencies to address environmental justice. The Clinton administration said that low-income neighborhoods, communities of color and tribal lands had experienced disparities in environmental contamination and even pollution within their homes.

President Barack Obama renewed Clinton's order earlier this month, calling together agencies to work on the issue after a 10-year lull. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, in an interview with NBC News, said the administration and her agency want to give priority to communities that face disproportionate impact from environmental pollution.

McCarthy said she recognizes institutional racism has played a role in the challenges faced by some communities -- in part, through historic covenants that steered polluting industries to ethnic neighborhoods -- but said the focus now is not how did we get here, but "how do we get out of this?"

"How do we provide protection to every community?" she said.

"We are working hard to look at how we integrate environmental justice more effectively into the every day work of the agency and not make it a last minute consideration," McCarthy said. "It needs to be a priority issue."

McCarthy did not single out specific projects that would get her attention, though community leaders said there were plenty of examples within Latino communities around the country.

Mujeres de la Tierra's Irma Muñoz, who worked in the Clinton administration, said her group has focused on ensuring accountability from the oil field in her community - the largest urban oil field in the country. Her group recognizes that many of the industries that are considered polluters also help provide jobs and prevent poverty in Latino and other communities. Rather than espouse a "shut them down" philosophy, Mujeres de la Tierra tries to work with the industries to balance the environmental concerns with the families economic needs, she said.

Muñoz said it is good the administration wants to focus on environmental justice, but it needs to work at the local levels. "It's not a national conversation. It's a local conversation," Muñoz said.

"We are in desperate need for support for us....If that is their (EPA's)priority, resources hopefully will get to the community that's been having challenges for a long, long time," she said. "For me it is what are the outcomes?"

Just last week, UFW advocates expressed disappointment at the administration's proposed rules which remove a requirement that information about pesticides being used in fields be available anonymously to workers.

"The problem we've had over the decades is the industry has played a game called 'no data, no problems,'" said Erik Nicholson, national vice president with United Farm Workers. A worker with cancer and neurological damage is asked to prove the illness is connected, but without information about the pesticides, can't, he said.

"What the EPA does is contract out to state government to enforce, often with little or no funding," he said.

Lisa Graves Marcucci, Pennsylvania coordinator of community outreach at the Enviromental Integrity Project, said her group began meeting with families over exposure to air and water pollution from coal ash sites. Many in the community are Spanish-speaking and are immigrant families. "This community, they have so many things on their plate, trying to get kids into school, trying to integrate children in school. We are trying to show them they have a right to speak up," Graves Marcucci said.

For her part, McCarthy said she recently met with the League of United Latin American Citizens in San Antonio. Even with its many community groups, the organization's familiarity with the work of the EPA was limited, she said.

McCarthy added that the effects of climate change on some vulnerable communities is an environmental justice issue.

"Look at Hurricane Sandy, the communities that didn't bounce back are the (minority) communities." Minority advocacy groups have raised concerns about disparities in distribution of recovery money after the hurricane.