Environmental justice movement gets push from White House

Environmental justice.

The term sounds great. The concept, however, has a long way to go.

While poor areas get the brunt of a long list of environmental hazards and toxic sites, bad stuff can be buried or swirling in the air or water in any ZIP code. Progress has a way of getting things done and dealing with consequences later.

But Obama's taken up the call.

This week, Lisa P. Jackson, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator, and Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, resurrected the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice.

Big deal, right? Perhaps not. But it's something and at least a positive move by the Obama administration to push for federal protection from environmental and health hazards for everyone. The language of a press release reminds me of talk in the living room political gatherings I grew up with in Alaska.

I can hear my activist parents, Willie and Mary Ratcliff, publishers of the San Francisco Bayview, saying the same thing 30 years ago.

"Pollution like dirty air and contaminated water can have significant economic impacts on overburdened and low-income communities, driving away investment in new development and new jobs and exposing residents to potentially costly health threats." I was momentarily taken back in time by the words.

My activist parents continue to fight the battle they began as teenagers in the 1950s, my mother at Oberlin, my father as a black concrete contractor in California and up the coast to the Last Frontier. The best way to describe their message over the years I sum up by quoting Jesse Jackson's jobs, peace and freedom call for justice.

Environmental justice is a huge part of this, and it's effects can be seen in any poor community across the globe. Immigrant entry points in big cities are overlooked as are rural areas. Got something toxic? Give it to the poor folks under the auspices of jobs.

Jobs never materialize but the toxics remain.

I generalize, but dig a little and the examples are there.

The EPA's newfound call for environmental justice is supposed to "guide, support and enhance federal environmental justice and community-based activities." Officials say the effort will help federal agencies identify projects "where federal collaboration can support the development of healthy and sustainable communities."

Who knows if it will mean anything beyond more high- and low-level bureaucratic meetings? I'm optimistic. Just talking about it raises the political capital of the environmental movement and the push to generate interest and jobs in a clean energy economy.

Groups like 350.org will gain grassroots members and the 10/10/10 movement may gain a little boost to identify and tackle projects that make the world a better place.

I'm inspired by something U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said: β€œIn too many areas of our country, the burden of environmental degradation falls disproportionately on low-income and minority communities – and most often, on the children who live in those communities. Our environmental laws and protections must extend to all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.”

Photo: KQED Quest. One of many signs at Hunter's Point Shipyard in San Francisco.