HHS/NIEHS meeting advances environmental justice initiatives
By Eddy Ball
Nearly 100 attendees gathered at NIEHS July 16-17 for the Environmental Justice (EJ) Stakeholders Implementation Meeting. Attendees represented non-profit advocacy groups, universities, and government agencies across the U.S.
Moderated by Sandra Howard, senior environmental health advisor in the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health, and Joseph (Chip) Hughes, director of the NIEHS Worker Education and Training Program (WETP), the meeting was a key component of the HHS 2012 Environmental Justice Strategy and Implementation Plan launched formally in February. Following a decade of limited progress toward the goals of EJ, the plan is designed to revitalize the federal government’s commitment to the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.
The agenda featured keynote presentations by Nadine Gracia, M.D., acting HHS deputy assistant secretary for minority health, and Juliet Choi, J.D., chief of staff and senior advisor in the HHS Office for Civil Rights, as well as special topic panels for general attendees and working groups planning for next steps (see text box). Several meeting goers also attended an Interagency Working Group on EJ town hall meeting the evening of July 16 in Durham, N.C., exploring how the federal government can meet its responsibilities and work effectively with communities experiencing EJ issues.
Underscoring the HHS/NIEHS commitment to EJ
Speaking on behalf of NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training Director Gwen Collman, Ph.D., described Birnbaum’s commitment to EJ and the range of programs funded by NIEHS that have promoted community engagement and capacity building to further environmental public health. “True partnership involves everyone in a meaningful manner,” she said of the touchstone for effective EJ efforts by NIEHS.
Presentations by Howard and Vernice Miller-Travis, vice chair of the Maryland State Commission on EJ and Sustainable Communities, outlined the goals of the implementation plan. Howard listed four broad objectives for the meeting — sharing the status of the plan, obtaining shareholder input, identifying potential partnerships, and defining stakeholder suggestions for the future.
Referring to the excitement, energy, and progress during the six years that followed the 1994 Executive Order on EJ, Miller-Travis said of the plan, “What we’re really doing is reinvigorating the incredible work that’s been done before.” Despite the stagnation that followed those early years, she acknowledged ongoing EJ contributions by NIEHS programs, notably the WETP Minority Worker Training Program managed by Sharon Beard, which has trained more than 10,000 individuals. “You know that lives have been changed,” Miller-Travis said, “in places where things were hopeless before.”
HHS officials reach out to attendees
In her talk on “Reaffirming Our Commitment: Advancing EJ at HHS,” Gracia assured attendees of the commitment of officials, at the highest levels of government, to the principles of EJ and described hopeful signs as the movement prepares to enter its third decade. “We believe that all Americans have the right to live healthy lives,” she said. “We at HHS are proud to be a part of reinvigorating EJ.” Gracia pointed to recent initiatives, including the Affordable Care Act, Healthy People 2020, and the Surgeon General’s National Prevention Strategy, that will help achieve the goals of EJ, even if they don’t use the specific vocabulary of EJ.
Because many attendees admitted they hadn’t known HHS even had an Office of Civil Rights, they seemed especially interested in the talk July 17 by Choi on “Leveraging Federal Civil Rights Law to Combat Environmental Injustices and Health Disparities.” Although she was naturally cautious about getting too specific and understandably unwilling to discuss cases currently in litigation that could illuminate the intersection of civil rights, HHS Title VI requirements protecting equal opportunity, and EJ, Choi encouraged people in the audience to learn more about their rights, by contacting her office directly concerning civil rights issues in their communities.
Moving EJ forward — Actions, future partnerships, and next steps for engagement
The meeting’s panel discussions led up to four breakout sessions July 17 in the areas of HHS EJ actions policy development and dissemination; education and training; research and data collection, analysis, and utilization; and services.
The deliberations culminated in reports to the entire group and a panel discussion on “Suggestions for Implementation of EJ Actions, Future Partnerships, and Next Steps on Stakeholder Engagement and EJ Strategy Implementation.” Howard was joined on the panel by NIEHS Senior Advisor for Public Health John Balbus, M.D.; Goldman Environmental Prize winner Hilton Kelley of the Community In-Power and Development Association of Port Arthur, Texas; and Suzanne Condon, associate commissioner and director of the Bureau of Environmental Health at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
Recurrent themes in recommendations included better documentation of disparities at the community level, and more effective engagement and education of local government officials; expanding the use of Health Impact Assessments for the potential effects of projects on health; utilization of new technologies, such as geographic information systems and electronic medical records; development of persuasive cost and benefit analyses to outline the economic advantages of improving health through EJ; nurturing citizen involvement, through what veteran advocates call crowd-sourcing and ground-truthing; taking more advantage of federal resources through regional offices; and improving outreach to community resources, such as health centers, clinics, and community colleges.
Above all, panelists agreed, the momentum needs to continue to increase and the community needs to be proactive in terms of involvement. “Let’s keep talking,” said Condon. Striking a similar note, Balbus told the audience, “The community is grateful for the revival [of EJ support], but we don’t want to go back [to the inertia of the previous decade].” As one attendee noted, staying engaged is critical. “If you’re not at the table,” she said, “often you’re on the menu.”