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What Is Environmental Justice?

Environmental justice is fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people with respect to development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. Fair treatment means that no population bears a disproportionate share of negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations or from the execution of federal, state, and local laws; regulations; and policies. Meaningful involvement requires effective access to decision makers for all, and the ability in all communities to make informed decisions and take positive actions to produce environmental justice for themselves.

Environmental justice is actually a principal of American democracy that combines civil rights with environmental protection. It demands that that those who have historically been excluded from environmental decision making, traditionally minority, low-income, and tribal communities, have the same access to environmental decision makers, decision-making processes, and the ability to make reasoned contributions to decision-making process as any other individuals.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE, or Department) is committed to environmental justice. We take it seriously. It is a Department-wide activity with Department-wide responsibility. Fair treatment is how we conduct business at DOE. Several of the Department’s Operating Principals memorialize this commitment. We endeavor in all we do to treat people with the dignity and respect they deserve, while keeping our commitments and ensuring safe, secure, and environmentally responsible operations. Meaningful involvement requires that our stakeholders have a working knowledge of the subject matter under discussion, as well as the process for conducting the discussion. In order to be productive participants, all stakeholders must be versed in the subject matter and understand the rules of the process. Otherwise, their participation will not be meaningful.

With meaningful involvement in mind, our environmental justice program conducts a number of activities for stakeholders and host communities near our sites. Our intent with these activities can be described as follows: To give our stakeholders the opportunities to participate in DOE decision making to the greatest degree possible, to give our stakeholders the tools to participate in DOE decision making and to give our host communities technical assistance to help them strengthen their economies to the greatest extent possible.

Many environmental justice issues revolve around issues of environmental risk. Agencies with ample experience and knowledge of their activities will view risk differently from lay citizens. The real issue is often the perceived risk rather than the real risk. Differences in the perception of risk are escalated where there are outstanding issues or distrust between the agency and a community or group.

The legal basis for incorporating environmental justice in DOE operations is Presidential Executive Order 12898, Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations.This Executive Order tasked each federal agency to make achieving environmental justice part of its mission. The agencies were directed to do so by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, the disproportionate high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their programs, policies, and activities on minority, low-income, and tribal communities. The Executive Order also required the agencies to prepare a strategy for integrating environmental justice into all of their activities. DOE revised and reissued its Environmental Justice Strategy and Environmental Justice Five-Year Implementation Plan in 2008.