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During a time of national reckoning on race, environmental groups are demanding that Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. and his administration show a stronger commitment to addressing environmental injustices in the state.
Assateague Coastal Trust, along with eight other Maryland organizations and community leaders, penned a letter to Hogan last week, denouncing the Maryland Department of the Environment for its failure to advance environmental justice initiatives and the governor for lack of leadership.
Two decades ago, the Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities was created by an executive order issued by Gov. Parris N. Glendening. The 20-member body was tasked with advising state agencies on environmental justice issues, assessing how current state laws address environmental inequities and developing a criteria to determine which communities may be disproportionately hit by environmental degradation.
Advocates claim that the commission has failed to influence any meaningful policies, partly because of its lack of sufficient representation from affected communities of color.
‘Blind to what the real issues are’
“It is a non-functioning commission,” said Kathy Phillips, the executive director of Assateague Coastal Trust, an environmental advocacy group in the Delmarva coastal region. “They are blind to what the real issues are.”
In 2015, the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Maryland wrote a 21-page report on Maryland’s environmental justice efforts and found that the state had made little progress. “State agencies are largely reactive — responding to outside pressure and efforts — rather than proactive in developing solutions,” the report states.
This is especially difficult when there is a lack of strong community-based environmental justice infrastructure in Maryland, said Sacoby Wilson, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. There are dedicated individual activists, but not as many organized grass-roots green groups exclusively fighting for environmental justice in the state, he said.
This means that people such as Monica Brookes, who lives in Wicomico County, had to rely on the state for protection when she found out that a 13-house poultry complex was going to be built a half-mile away from her house in 2014. She organized Concerned Citizens Against Industrial CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operation) soon after she heard the news.
But she said she got no help from the state or the County Council when it came to fighting for the community’s rights for a clean and healthy environment. There was simply no recourse, so community members had to fight on their own, she said.
It took two years for her organization to expel that plan.
“Why did we have to do all that? It shouldn’t be the uphill battle that it is,” Brookes said. “An effective [environmental justice] commission would give people the power to fight against agricultural giants and the hope that someone is looking out for them.” Not everyone has the financial means to fight against powerful industries or the time to learn about which laws are supposed to be enforced, she said.
Members of the commission met with legislators this year to discuss the activities of the commission, said Jay Apperson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment. According to the commission’s website, a meeting was supposed to be held on Jan. 28 but was canceled. The last annual report posted on the website is from 2017-2018 and the most recent meeting minutes dates to July 2019.
The 2019 annual report, which includes a case study of the Eastern Shore and a compilation of meeting minutes from that year, was obtained by Maryland Matters upon request.
A real report should have a list of recommendations in response to concerns raised by stakeholders at meetings, in addition to measurable steps the commission will take to hold relevant state agencies accountable, Wilson said. “That’s what a report should look like, not just a log of your meeting minutes.”
“I thought the case studies were missing climate equity and justice framing, missing the voice of frontline and fenceline communities, and did not bring a lot of public health or health indicators into play,” Wilson said.
“It would be helpful to have seen maps of areas of concern, hazard profile, sociodemographic profile, and climate risks. I am not sure why these case studies did not talk about the role of agriculture, particularly industrial chicken farming as a source of greenhouse gases, the risks these facilities pose to natural resources and climate resilient infrastructure, and the risk from climate related perturbations including sea level rise and flooding on these facilities.”
The commission must be completely re-chartered, advocates wrote in the letter to Hogan, to ensure that it has real teeth in impacting policy.
A permanent working group within the commission, dedicated to redressing the impacts of pollution faced by low income populations and communities of color, is also necessary, advocates wrote.
There are four vacancies on the commission, according to its website. Steve Levitsky, the vice president of sustainability for Perdue Farms, holds a seat on the commission as a representative for “affected communities with EJ concern,” but Phillips thinks that is unacceptable, especially when the “Business/Public” seat is open.
“Maryland must have a newly constituted Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities with authentic representation of impacted communities to immediately begin addressing ongoing environmental injustice,” she said in a statement.
One of the largest fundamental flaws of the commission is MDE’s lack of a real environmental justice plan, Wilson said. “Having an environmental justice commission does not mean you have an environmental justice plan.”
Rather, a plan means having clear metrics to track environmental justice progress and performance standards for the staff implementing the plan, advocates wrote. It means requiring all state agencies to develop strategies to incorporate environmental justice into their policies.
“You had a lot of talk, but not a lot of action,” Wilson said.
MDE officials say they are working on strengthening the commission.
“Months ago, MDE began developing strategies for ‘restoration from the inside out,’ including internal policies for workforce diversity and permitting, funding, enforcement, and public engagement involving overburdened and underserved communities, and important revisions to the staffing and operation of the Maryland Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities,” said Ben Grumbles, the MDE secretary.
MDE is not the only one at fault, advocates say. The governor also has a responsibility to be the guiding voice on environmental justice in the state, Phillips said. Advocates are calling on Hogan to issue an executive order on environmental justice like North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) did in June, which calls on state agencies to address the social, environmental, economic, and health disparities in communities of color that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said that the governor recently pushed for a statement of racial equity for Chesapeake Bay states when it comes to working to ensure the bay’s health.
“We appreciate the letter, and the group’s commitment to their issues,” Ricci said. “At Tuesday’s meeting of the Chesapeake Executive Council, chaired by Governor Hogan, the council adopted a historic statement reaffirming the commitment of the partnership in embracing diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in all forms.”
But statements are not enough, Wilson said — they are just words on paper. “Until they have an actual plan with metrics and accountability, that statement means nothing.”