I wrote yesterday about the Obama administration’s push for “environmental justice.” The Environmental Protection Agency under Lisa Jackson has made the movement a priority, even though the agency has no statutory authority to enforce standards of environmental justice, assuming that such standards could even be defined. The danger, of course, is that the EPA will exercise powers it doesn’t legally possess by threatening companies that are subject to its regulations with reprisals if they don’t go along with the agency’s extra-legal agenda.
How might that happen? Let’s look to Corpus Christi, Texas, for an example. Corpus Christi is a port city where large quantities of petroleum products are imported and exported. The city is home to three refineries, owned by Valero, Flint Hills and Citgo. Those refineries are heavily regulated by the EPA and their emissions are tightly controlled. The EPA has a right and a duty to enforce those regulations; but the more flexible yardstick of “environmental justice” evidently demands something more.
Working in collaboration with environmental activists, the EPA has issued an “Action Plan for Corpus Christi Ship Channel Communities.” This is a screen shot of the first page of the plan:
The EPA’s stated concern is for communities called Hillcrest and Dona Park, which are “located along the fence line of Ship Channel facilities.” The EPA cites a single local pressure group, Citizens For Environmental Justice, as a source of its focus on Corpus Christi. So, what does the agency propose to do, given that Corpus Christi’s refineries are already satisfying the government’s emission standards?
Members of the Hillcrest and Dona Park neighborhoods have concerns about excess emissions, flaring, and industrial accidents affecting residents near the fenceline of large industrial facilities, even if environmental compliance is improved. In addition, some community residents have expressed a strong desire to be relocated.
Relocated? Does that mean the EPA might buy them a bus ticket? Or does it mean the agency will try to pressure the owners of the refineries to buy them a new home, somewhere else?
EPA Commitments: EPA will encourage and join in discussions between concerned members of communities, the City, industry and other interested stakeholders regarding voluntary options for addressing important fenceline community issues, including increased buffer zones, reduced emissions, better communication and relocation.
“Increased buffer zones” means relocating the people who live closest to the refineries and razing their homes.
Although EPA’s legal authority to require the creation of buffer zones or to order industries to relocate nearby residents is very limited, EPA will work to bring all parties together at a Summit where issues can be identified and workgroups can be formed to find constructive solutions.
“Very limited”? To my knowledge, the EPA has no authority whatsoever to order citizens to move, to destroy their homes, or to force industries to buy new houses in different locations for people who happen to live near their facilities–most of whom moved there long after the refineries were constructed. All such measures, as the EPA says, are “voluntary.” But how voluntary will they be, when the agency’s implicit threat is to withhold the permits that the refineries need to operate, either on existing or on new facilities?
It apparently never occurred to the EPA that its plan to create buffer zones and relocate some or all of the residents of Hillcrest and Dona Park would more or less destroy those communities. So the agency likely was surprised when a local city councilman objected to its effort at social engineering:
Subject: Corpus Christi EPA Summit
Date: Mon, 14 Nov 2011 22:56:02 -0600
I attempted to call Ms. Hale and Ms. Taheri today to get some clarification about topics and form of the summit this Friday. Since I received no return calls I am writing you. As an At-Large Councilman in Corpus Christi I directly represent the whole city including the neighborhoods near refinery row. As the former co-chair of the City Brownfields Committee, Chairman of the Downtown Management District, Planning Commissioner, and Founding Chairman of Bay Area Smart Growth Initiative I am no stranger to the issues surrounding neighborhoods near the refineries. I would like to know if the purpose of the meeting Friday is to discuss the desirability of removal of Dona Park and Hillcrest as residential neighborhoods or is it to discuss how this will be implemented?
I ask because it appears from the press release for the event that the EPA administrator has made the determination that two neighborhoods should be wiped from the map apparently without consultation with the people who actually live in them. Since you all appear to be in the Environmental Justice wing of the EPA care to comment on this fact? It doesn’t sound like Environmental Justice to me. It also does not sound like the start of an honest or fair discussion.
It also appears that the four “community” representatives are made up of people who don’t live in the neighborhoods, one of which apparently lives in the City of Austin. While I love our brothers and sisters to the North I am pretty sure they are not part of our community. How was this decision made?
Are any of the policy goals formed at this meeting going to be executed with funding by the EPA? I ask because if EPA proposes the leveling of these peoples’ homes to convert the areas to urban prairie or to light industrial uses lack of funding to accomplish this will effectively complete the environmental blockbusting of the remaining homeowners.
I will also remind you that previous attempts at what is being proposed have ended quickly on consultation with people in the neighborhood (this is not the first round of this). I think the possible realignment of the Harbor bridge does offer some ability to reintegrate Hillcrest and Washington-Coles into Downtown. These efforts would probably be best done by leadership that values the neighborhoods, their history, and the people in them enough to include them in the planning. Hosting meetings 11-13 miles from an affected low income mostly transit dependent neighborhood on a workday is not inclusion.
If the purpose of this summit is to “start a conversation” let me tell you where the last one in Hillcrest ended. The city spent a substantial sum of money creating a plan for the buffer zone with the city, industry, the neighborhood, and CFEJ at the table. Three parties, the city, the neighborhood, and industry, seemed to agree on a plan setting a buffer line, moving houses within the line to empty lots outside the line to consolidate the neighborhood, and then redeveloping the buffer area with uses compatible to a single family neighborhood. Allowed uses in the blocks next to the neighborhood would have been light office in nature while those closer to Nueces Bay Blvd. could be more support related (parking lots or light warehouse). This would preserve the neighborhood for those wishing to continue living there and also serve the purpose of raising values so those wishing to be bought out could sell their homes for enough to afford to live elsewhere. This plan was killed by one of your community representatives stating that everyone had to be removed or they would die.
I would appreciate a swift response to the questions I have asked. If you have any questions or comments or need additional information please contact me either at this email email@example.com or by phone 361-857-8991(office) or 361-877-0474(cell/home). I will see you Friday.
City of Corpus Christi Councilman At-Large
Mr. Loeb received this condescending reply:
Thank you for your call and email. You bring to light important issues that I’m sure we all agree are complex and important. The purpose of this summit is to provide a forum for productive conversation with all interested parties. I’m glad you will join in the conversation on Friday and I look forward to meeting you. Perhaps you and I can have a sidebar about some of the issues mentioned in your email.
Office of External Affairs
But the city councilman was not so easily deflected:
Thank you for responding. I would appreciate you answering my previous questions. They were not rhetorical. If you are not authorized to do so please direct me to who can. I can assure you I am not interested in a side bar conversation about why the EPA appears to have been co-opted into promoting an agenda that has been consistently rejected by the neighborhoods it affects. I would rather that be cleared up in writing or in public. Upon further review I have several more questions about the press release.
Who are the “other groups” mentioned in the following? “At the meeting earlier that day, members of CFEJ and reps from other groups shared various concerns with the RA including the need for relocating the fence-line communities and the need to bring industry and city together with the community to work to address these and other concerns.” -CFEJ press release 11-10-2011
Which residents of Dona Park or Hillcrest attended this meeting?
Which residents of Dona Park or Hillcrest were invited to attend this meeting?
Do minutes of this meeting exist?
If so may I have a copy?
If my tone appears alarmist I am sorry but I am alarmed. I will admit I have less experience with Dona Park than with Hillcrest but from what I can see Rev. Williams is the only person from the neighborhoods that has been given a seat at the table and this appears to be at the city’s urging and not at EPAs.
You are correct that the issue of the fence line neighborhoods is complex and important. The first complexity that must be recognized is that this is not an issue solely involving industry and environmental groups. The second complexity is that a significant number of residents want to keep their neighborhoods and not be relocated or see them destroyed through blockbusting or planned shrinkage. The third is that this desire to stay is not recognized by some parties. These complexities have resulted in the current state. While EPA trying to mediate this may seem admirable, your actions so far appear to be those of a party rather than a mediator. Please include the residents and please be neutral.
Councilman David Loeb
This looks like a classic example of Washington bureaucrats trying to dictate to a local community based on their obviously superior notions of “justice,” without understanding the practical consequences of the measures they intend to impose. And how will all of this environmental justice be paid for? Through “voluntary” contributions by businesses who can’t operate without the EPA’s permission, the cost of which will be passed on to you and me.
There are at least two dangers here. The first is that the measures the EPA imposes in the name of environmental justice, unconstrained by any legislative authority, let alone standards, will be bad. The second is that the EPA will use the broad permitting authority with which Congress has entrusted it to pursue an extra-legal political agenda. Which seems to be exactly what is going on in Corpus Christi.