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Environmental Justice at the Department of Energy

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 American Indian and Alaska Native communities, have the same access to environmental decision makers, decision-making processes, and the ability to make reasoned contributions to decision-making processes 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.

History of Environmental Justice at the Department of Energy

The legal basis for incorporating environmental justice in DOE operations is Presidential Executive Order (EO) 12898, Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations. Signed by President William J. Clinton on February 11, 1994, Executive Order 12898 states, among other things, that “each federal agency shall develop an agency-wide environmental justice strategy that identifies and addresses disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on 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 and low-income, and American Indian and Alaskan Native communities. The Executive Order also required the agencies to prepare a strategy for integrating environmental justice into all of their activities.

In response to EO 12898, DOE prepared and issued its first EJ Strategy in 1995. Since that time, DOE has conducted a number of actions to implement the EJ program. The DOE Office of Legacy Management (LM) has leadership responsibilities for the Department’s EJ program. In 2008, DOE issued its second EJ Strategy and the Environmental Justice Five-Year Implementation Plan.

To reinforce DOE’s commitment to EJ, on August 4, 2011, the Department joined 16 other executive branch agencies in signing a Memorandum of Understanding on Environmental Justice (MOU). This MOU is an important step in furthering the Administration’s commitment to ensuring healthy communities for all Americans. The MOU advances federal agency responsibilities under EO 12898. Specific new areas of focus include considering the climate change adaptation impacts on EJ and strengthening EJ efforts under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

More than 20 years after the signing of EO 12898, the Department remains committed to the principles of EJ and continues to build upon the legacy of EO 12898. In 2017, the Department published its third EJ Strategy. This Strategy seeks to demonstrate the Department’s commitment and further efforts to comply with EO 12898.