Office of Legacy Management

LM Director Shares DOE’s Commitment to Environmental Justice at Conference

April 26, 2018

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Carmelo Melendez, LM Director
Carmelo Melendez, LM Director

2018 National Environmental Justice Conference and Training Program:
Enhancing Communities through Capacity Building and Technical Assistance
Justice, Equality, and Equity for Our Youth and Future Generations

April 25-27, 2018
Remarks by Carmelo Melendez, Director Office of Legacy Management
U.S. Department of Energy

Good Afternoon. I’m pleased to be here with you today on behalf of the Department of Energy, and I want to thank you for attending this very important conference and training program. My goal over this lunch hour is to give you a brief overview of what my Department (DOE) is doing in the area of Environmental Justice (or EJ), share some observations about the importance of EJ, and touch on what the Department hopes you get out of this conference and training program.

Before I go any further, I’d like to take a moment to recognize my coworkers, specifically Melinda Downing and Denise Freeman, who are the DOE leaders responsible for executing our EJ strategic plan into tactical action. I also want to recognize our contractor partners, such as my colleague Susana Navarro from Navarro Engineering, who enable us to perform our mission every day.

I’m the career Senior Executive in DOE responsible for coordinating the Department’s EJ Program and ensuring it’s integrated into the mission and work of all the Department’s program offices. In other words, I work for Melinda and Denise.

EJ is important not only to my Department, but also to me personally. Close to 60 years ago, a group of women who worked in a manufacturing plant making thermometers questioned how the plant was handling mercury and other substances. They also questioned how the plant was handling their waste. They were young, smart people who wanted answers for themselves and for their community. However, because of the way they looked and spoke, and where they came from, their quest for respectful answers and meaningful involvement wasn’t viewed as necessary, and their concerns weren’t taken seriously. Today, there’s a Superfund Site close to where those women worked. I know this story firsthand because one of those bright, young women was my mother.

EJ is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people—regardless of race, ethnicity, and income or education level—in environmental decision-making. That’s a powerful statement of our responsibility to the communities we serve, and a goal we will be working toward in perpetuity.

As you can appreciate from my personal story, and perhaps from your own experiences, EJ is a complicated subject and there’s no one-size-fits-all model. Our DOE EJ Program Manager, Ms. Melinda Downing, asked that I use one of her favorite quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from 1967, which I think is important as a foundation for how we think about concepts of justice and injustice:

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects us all indirectly.”

This year’s conference theme—Justice, Equality, and Equity for Our Youth and Future Generations—is aimed at educating communities and our youth on the capacity-building tools and resources available to aid them in contributing to a sustainable, meaningful future.

You may be wondering why federal agencies are participating in this conference and training event. We’re here because federal agencies embrace EJ as part of their decision-making process and concept of operations. The genesis for EJ in the federal government began on February 11, 1994, when President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations. This Executive Order charged each agency with making EJ a part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority and low-income populations. Over the course of the past two decades each subsequent administration has recognized the value of an EJ program, and the talented employees in federal agencies have worked diligently to be productive within that inescapable network of mutuality.

Several times you’ve heard me use the word “mission” when referring to what my Department and its program offices do. So, what is DOE’s mission? Just like my Marine Corps’ mission, which I can explain in three bullets—we make marines, we win battles, and we return good citizens to society—I can summarize DOE’s mission in three bullets. We make scientific discoveries and engineering solutions, we seek energy prosperity, and we ensure America’s security by leveraging technology. These two organizations have a “bias for action,” and I can assure you DOE has been a leader in EJ because we are an action-driven organization.

In DOE, we promote EJ in several ways, including:

  • Investments in science and the workforce
  • Public involvement in our mission
  • Capacity building
  • Energy-related investments

DOE does not have a lock on good ideas, we simply offer these examples to you as concepts  you can use to strengthen EJ within your own community or agency. I’d like to now provide some specific examples of what we, as a Department, are doing in the EJ arena:

Investments in Science: Since 2007, more than 350 minority undergraduate, graduate, doctoral, and post-doctoral students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), other Minority Serving Institutions, and the Workforce of the Future have participated in internships (predominately research) at DOE laboratories and site offices. Of these students, 95 percent are majoring in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines that align with DOE mission-critical skills. We have awarded approximately 43 grants totaling over $90 million to STEM programs at colleges and universities. DOE’s participation in minority serving institutions is comprised of 24 HBCUs, one HSI, four non-profit organizations, and two (a community college district and majority university) institutions targeting Native American STEM students, for a combined total of 31 partnerships. Each minority serving institution has an internship component as a grant requirement whereby students are competitively selected to intern in the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA’s) headquarters, site offices, and national laboratories.

Several of DOE’s programs jointly fund a program ($2.1 million per year) that allows four tribal governments (Pueblos) to develop and maintain environmental monitoring programs specific to their respective communities and to provide technical input to DOE’s decision-making processes. The program also funds an educational initiative—the Community-Based Education Model (CBEM)—at the Santa Fe Indian School (SFIS), an Indian-owned residence high school that incorporates community-based subject matter into STEM curriculum. Over 35 SFIS students, most graduates of the CBEM program, have since won Gates Millennium awards.

Public Involvement in Cleanup Decisions and Site Activities: The DOE Site Specific Advisory Boards (SSABs), established in 1994, involve stakeholders directly in cleanup decisions. The Federal Advisory Council Act chartered a DOE SSAB consisting of eight local boards under its umbrella charter. It is DOE’s policy to conduct its programs in an open and responsive manner, thereby encouraging and providing the opportunity for public participation in its planning and decision-making processes. The boards continue to solicit and receive advice that’s factored into government decisions and continual efforts are made to ensure SSAB membership reflects the diverse viewpoints of affected communities and regions.

NNSA oversees dynamic community commitment plans at each of its national laboratories. At Los Alamos National Laboratory, the contractor partners with several not-for-profit organizations on education, economic development, and community-giving initiatives within the northern New Mexico region. The plan is deployed to support EJ considerations. NNSA joins those efforts.

Last year, NNSA Laboratories acquired over $104 million of goods and services from American Indian-owned businesses or businesses owned by members of federally recognized tribes. These purchases add to the history of buys from this sector by the laboratories, amounting to over $830 million since 2009 when the Department adopted DOE Order 144.1, DOE American Indian Tribal Government Interactions and Policy.

From 2002 through 2016, the DOE Tribal Energy Program has awarded a total of $66.5 million to fund 217 tribal energy projects valued at more than $126 million. During that same period, tribes contributed a total of $59.7 million in cost sharing to advance their energy projects.

The Navajo Nation Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) Program helps provide support for independent inspections of four tribal-land sites (Monument Valley, AZ processing site; and three disposal cells at Mexican Hat, UT; Shiprock, NM; and Tuba City, AZ) through a cooperative agreement.

Capacity Building: DOE, like other federal agencies, has specific programs for its communities and stakeholders. One notable DOE program is the Community Leaders Institute or CLI. In short, CLI is a focused and in-depth technical assistance program that helps communities find federal, state, and local government resources to aid in resolving issues within a given community. This program is viable and successful because it’s driven by the community. CLIs have been held in EJ communities around the country including South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Energy Conservation: The Department's work on energy efficiency has broad relevance to EJ communities. Cost savings associated with our work on buildings and appliances increases affordability. Weatherization programs enable low-income families to permanently reduce their energy bills by making their homes efficient with insulation, more efficient appliances, and other methods. DOE's work on renewable energy and vehicle technologies may also reduce air pollution affecting EJ communities. The cumulative emission reductions these programs and technologies achieve contribute, by extension, to our efforts to address EJ issues.

Last summer, I had time to reflect on a few things I’ve learned in the context of EJ. Here are my five observations:

  1. Unconscious bias is common. We tend to prefer a specific approach without being objective. Unconscious bias is omnipresent and hard to unlearn—it distorts people’s thinking and their perceptions. We, as humans, frequently use “group characteristics” to judge an individual’s concerns and ideas.
  2. EJ is a moral imperative because environmental injustice does both social and economic harm. EJ is not an impediment for us to achieve our mission or materialize an action or a solution. When designing solutions, the smallest details matter. Therefore asking other people to seek fair solutions in a negotiation or asking them to listen and comprehend your message or your request doesn’t work if “self-serving bias” comes into play. In other words, we can sometimes be so focused on our own concerns that we fail to hear what others are saying. Seeking to understand others’ perspectives can help us rationalize a problem and clear a path forward.
  3. We need to accept that different people will have different views on any proposed action, and this reality shouldn’t deter us from pursuing our goals with equal access to information and analytical reasoning.
  4. We should use social norms to promote equal access to information, as well as promote the capacity to understand and apply it. Redesigning work and decision processes can make it easier to act in an unbiased and ethically inclusive way. Practicing empathy and training people in clear thinking helps them act ethically.
  5. Transparency shapes peoples' actions. Making clear, understandable information openly available is useful because social norms guide these actions. People like to be respected and recognized on equal footing. I don’t like to use the term activist because I think we are all activists for some cause. I refer to engaged individuals as “community leaders” and “responsible citizens” because I see myself as a “responsible public servant.” People like to be part of groups and act according to shared norms of behavior. Most people, regardless if they are on opposite sides of an issue, respond to knowing what others are doing and modify their behavior and perhaps their positions to align with some common ground. Conversely, people who are not in the know may apply stereotypical assumptions, which serve as Heuristics, or rules of thumb, that allow us to process information more easily. However, they are often inconclusive and inaccurate.

What do We Want You to Get Out of this Conference? EJ programs were put into place to give communities with minority populations, low-income populations, American Indians, and Alaska Natives the resources to address the many issues these communities often face. This conference, in its 12th year, is an EJ community event, with government and corporate support.

As result of listening to community requests for resources and tools, the conveners of this conference re-focused their attention. This may be most evidenced by the name of the conference—the 2018 Environmental Justice and Training Program. The training program portion of the name is worth highlighting. In addition, the overall theme is Enhancing Communities through Capacity Building and Technical Assistance. I hope you can attend the Grant Writing Workshop, the Title VI Workshop, or the Community Guide to Environmental Justice and National Environmental Policy Act. The workshops will be beneficial to government employees as well as nonprofit and educational attendees.

In closing, we must re-emphasize the importance of the federal government keeping EJ in focus. Agencies are collaborating to combine resources and look for innovative solutions to achieve EJ through best practices. DOE is taking further steps to meet our commitment to EJ. Earlier this year, the Department revised and issued a new EJ Strategy, and we are now in the final stages of implementing our second EJ Five-Year Implementation Plan to help us in executing the goals and objectives of our strategy. This plan demonstrates our continuing efforts to fully integrate EJ throughout the Department and further raise awareness of the importance of our responsibilities to the health and safety of our communities for a sustainable quality of life.

A good way to view this conference is as a tool and resource that affords communities the access needed for gathering information and knowledge that can lead to building the capacity for self-reliant and sustainable communities.

I know you will take away many lessons  and tools that will help to bridge the divide we face in today’s environment. If I could send you off with one big take-away, it would be this:

We can reduce environmental injustice. Together, we can increase meaningful involvement and fair treatment.

Thank you again for the opportunity to join you in this year’s conference, I look forward to meeting you during the breaks, and please enjoy the remaining program.