The Interior Department Is Sidelining Environmental Justice

November 13, 2018

New Mexico’s San Juan county is no stranger to the unequal impacts of resource extraction. The residents of this arid region in the northwestern corner of the state, once declared an “energy-sacrifice zone,” have lived with the legacy of energy development for decades, from uranium mining during the height of the Cold War to coal, oil, and gas production that continues to this day. The county suffers from high rates of ozone and methane pollution, and Native and low-income communities there have for years fought for stronger environmental justice protections. Progress has been slow, but there was cautious optimism that the Department of the Interior, which manages much of the land in the county, would address some of their concerns in a forthcoming regional-management plan.

This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

But now it appears the Trump administration is moving in the opposite direction, undoing years of work to raise the profile of environmental justice within the department. In early September, the DOI quietly rescinded two policy memos that provided specific guidance on how to implement principles of environmental justice. The first memo, issued in 1995, instructed bureaus to look at impacts of proposed projects and, where necessary, to evaluate the environmental consequences on vulnerable communities or human health. The second memo, drafted two years later, addressed Interior’s responsibility to protect Native American trust resources and sacred sites on federal lands. In addition to rescinding the memos, the department has delayed publication of a manual on how to conduct environmental-justice analyses and has asked BLM employees to review environmental-justice policy in the context of an “energy dominance” agenda.

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