EPA delays rights plan: Opposition forces agency to rethink environmental justice.

    WASHINGTON -- As complaints pile up, the Environmental Protection Agency's plan to write a more workable "environmental justice" policy appears to be bogging down.

    The agency wanted to finish the revision early this summer, but now admits it will miss that deadline. The rewrite is intended to answer a storm of criticism about the policy, which links civil rights and anti-pollution laws.

    Internal EPA documents obtained by The Detroit News indicate there's doubt within the agency that the rewrite can be finished this year, and a host of additional problems are hindering its attempts to deal with environmental justice cases.

    EPA Civil Rights Chief Ann Goode acknowledged the debut of the new plan has officially been moved back to late August or possibly early fall.

    "But it's only a matter of weeks, and ensuring a thoughtful job and quality at the end is most important," Goode said.

    An agency memo said that "a more realistic schedule for the final guidance could go into 2000." Critics say the delays are inexcusable.

    "To mismanage is one thing," U.S. Rep. Joseph Knollenberg, R-Bloomfield Hills, said. "But this bumbling is starting to hurt the people the EPA is trying to help."

    The rules, released in draft form in early 1998, are intended to ensure that industries don't take advantage of areas heavily populated by minorities to dump pollutants.

    But controversy erupted when a coalition of business groups, big city mayors such as Detroit's Dennis Archer and most governors opposed the policy, saying it could hurt job development. As a result of that opposition and a congressional investigation, the EPA agreed to rewrite the rules.

    "It's an entirely predictable tangle," said Christopher Foreman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington who has followed the issue closely. "The EPA is trying to translate activist rhetoric into the legal and political constraints of a federal agency -- its a difficult challenge."

    According to agency documents and staff interviews, a cascade of problems is preventing the agency from meeting its self-imposed deadlines to make public revised regulations and start completing investigations. Some of these investigations have languished for years, including one in Flint involving a complaint against the Genesee Power Station that has been unresolved since July 1994:

    The number of new complaints is growing at a record pace -- 14 new complaints in the first five months of this year alone. As the EPA has struggled to deal with them, the backlog has grown by more than 30 percent to 44 cases, according to an EPA log.

    As the number of cases has exploded, the number of case managers to investigate them has dwindled from a peak of six to only two. According to Goode, a third case manager started last week after a months-long search for qualified applicants. When the civil rights office had six investigators, a budget report called the number of investigators "inadequate to handle the case load."

    The complexity of the cases is also growing into areas where the environmental agency has no expertise, staffers say. One new complaint adds religious and constitutional questions to the already complicated technical and racial issues by asking the EPA to prevent the unregulated use of mercury in religious rites common among Caribbean immigrants.

    The political pressure involved in solving the cases is also growing more intense. The agency is weighing four cases filed by congressmen from New York and Mississippi, all of who will have a say in new environmental laws and the agency's budget.

    Faced with the growing backlog and increasing pressure, Goode said, "We won't sacrifice quality for time. We're bonded by a regulatory framework that requires us to be thoughtful and deliberative."
Copyright 1999 The Detroit News, Inc.
The Detroit News 
June 14, 1999, Monday
SECTION: Front; Pg. Pg. A1
BYLINE: David Mastio / Detroit News Washington Bureau