The University Record, February 28, 1994

Clinton executive order has roots in work done at U

By Kate Kellogg
News and Information Services

President Clinton’s recent executive order for federal actions to address environmental injustice validates seven years of work for School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE) faculty members Bunyan Bryant and Paul Mohai.

Bryant and Jerry Poje, of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, co-facilitated a symposium that coincided with Clinton’s signing of the order Feb. 11. The 1994 National Symposium on Health Research and Needs to Ensure Environmental Justice brought together 1,100 community leaders, scientists, legal experts and representatives from seven federal agencies—including Carol Browner, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The long-awaited order requires all federal agencies to develop strategies to identify and remove environmental hazards that disproportionately affect minority and low-income populations. The agencies must complete those plans within a year, ensuring that minority and low-income populations are involved in decisions that affect their communities.

Bryant’s research and organizational work, along with the efforts of other scientists, community organizations and environmental groups, helped pave the way for this action.

At the four-day symposium, Bryant saw representatives of every minority group and government officials “for the first time sit down and talk about the issues of environmental justice that my colleagues in the School of Natural Resources and Environment and I have been studying and teaching about for so many years,” he says.

Participants presented anecdotes of their personal experiences with lead poisoning, environmentally-induced respiratory disease and pesticide exposure, among other problems, Bryant says.

Bryant says the executive order arose not only from this symposium, but from a series of attempts—spanning more than 16 years—to open the government’s eyes to the realities of environmental injustice.

“The genesis of the environmental justice movement was the 1982 demonstration in Warren County, N.C., against the burial of PCBs in minority neighborhoods,” he says. “But the U.S. government didn’t acknowledge race and environment as a national—rather than regional problem—until the United Church of Christ’s Commission on Racial Justice completed a study that showed race as the single most important variable in the locating of hazardous waste sites across the country.”

Studies by Bryant and Mohai have identified such links in the Detroit area. Since 1990, Bryant and Mohai have been organizing national conferences, including the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, as well as teaching SNRE courses on the subject.

By 1992, environmental justice finally was on the national agenda, but no president had yet charged federal agencies with the task of developing their own environmental justice strategies and reporting regularly to the president on their progress.

Clinton’s executive order provides for this process, for data collection and analysis, and for implementation under a deadline.

Conferees also examined the difficulty of tracing adverse health effects back to the chemicals that caused them, notes Robin Shaha, a second year SNRE graduate student and one of Bryant’s students.

“There’s a whole alphabet soup of chemicals out there and it’s difficult to know which ones are causing health problems,” he says. “At the same time, we know that cancer rates for certain groups are higher than ever before and growing. But it takes much time and money to establish all the credible links some people demand as scientific proof regarding sources of contamination. Meanwhile, people are dying.

“That’s what the conference and the executive order are all about,” Shaha says. “The order makes federal agencies’ funding priorities responsive to citizens’ needs and puts mechanisms in place for communities to oversee research agendas. If the agencies act alone, without the communities, nothing will change.”

Students found the symposium more instructive than any class they had taken because of the real-life examples it provided. Through their personal anecdotes, participants gave life to statistics on environmental injustice, says Deon Woods, a second-year graduate student in economics and another of Bryant’s students.

“I had never heard such graphic accounts of the health problems people have suffered because of their exposure to pesticides, petrochemical plants, coal mines and uranium testing,” she says. “We heard similar anecdotes again and again from people who live throughout the country.”

Other U-M faculty who attended the symposium were: Ivette Perfecto, assistant professor of natural resources; Dorceta E. Taylor, assistant professor of environmental sociology; Sylvia N. Tesh, assistant professor of public health policy; Gregory V. Button, assistant professor of public health policy; and Bruce Chin, associate professor of environmental and industrial health.