A PLAN FOR JUSTICE? 

The state's Department of Environment and Conservation is attempting to deal with issues of environmental racism.

After 2,000 phone interviews, 10 public meetings, and years of steering committees, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) released its Environment Justice Strategic Plan last month. Local environmental activists remain skeptical that TDEC’s enforcement procedures will improve. Ten years ago, African-American community activists united with the nation’s largest environmental organizations to address the fact that most of Tennessee’s worst polluting industries are found in poor and minority neighborhoods. They labeled this phenomenon environmental racism, or environmental justice, and the issue was brought to the public’s attention through lawsuits and protests. Two years ago, TDEC received a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to write a plan on how to better address environmental justice issues. The just-released plan calls for hiring environmental justice coordinators at each of TDEC’s branch offices, publishing corporate emission records and violations on the Internet, reaching out to effected neighborhoods, and acting on pollution complaints sooner. Sue Williams, who works on environmental justice issues for the Sierra Club, says it is difficult for residents of effected neighborhoods to find out what the emission permits actually allow. Not only are the permits huge and full of technical jargon -- a single permit fills four or five notebooks -- they are not usually available in or near the neighborhood where the emissions are proposed. Although she has been trained by the federal Environmental Protection Agency on how to read permits, Williams says it’s still difficult for her to know what chemical companies are wanting to do. Posting permit information on the Internet has been proposed, but she is angered at TDEC’s suggestion that data on past violations be excluded from their records as an incentive for offenders to go beyond what’s called for in their punishment. Notices for permit renewals are required to be published in newspapers, but Williams says notices are “buried” in The Daily News rather than placed in the Tri-State Defender or Commercial Appeal. “While this strategic planning process has gone on for about two years to make [issuing permits] more friendly for customers, it’s always the industry they serve, not those who breathe the air or drink the water,” Williams says. In November, before the strategic plan was published, the TDEC held a public meeting to address the concerns of Memphians. Only a few environmentalists showed up. Some environmentalists say the meeting wasn’t publicized properly, but those in attendance vented their anger at Dodd Galbreath, director of the TDEC policy office. While some changes were made to the plan, Tennessee Green Party spokesperson Scott Banbury complains there is no written procedure by which citizens can petition TDEC’s policy or permit decisions. TDEC spokesperson Kim Olsen says the strategic plan is a “living document” and changes could be made if the TDEC deems it necessary. New employees to assist with environmental justice will be hired in 2001, she says. Banbury also says that allowing industry representatives to be part of the strategic plan doesn’t jibe with the traditional definition of environmental justice. “TDEC is taking the issue away from the minority and low-income neighborhoods,” Banbury says. “The whole point of environmental justice is that the process has been unfair. Including the polluters makes it more difficult to rebalance the scales.” At the TDEC’s public meeting on its environmental justice plan, Rudy Jones read from a ruling from the state court of appeals concerning his four-year fight to get the TDEC to stop the City of Lakeland from dumping sewage into a creek running through his farm. He believes the TDEC has proved their lack of good faith in enforcing environmental laws by refusing to take action. “If TDEC did this to me with my economic abilities to take them to court -- which cost me tens of thousands of dollars -- what the TDEC does to those without economic resources must be appalling,” Jones says. The TDEC’s environmental justice strategic plan can be read and commented on at the TDEC’s Web site (www.tdec.net/epo/ej/plan).

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