Environmental Factor, January 2011, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Hughes represents NIEHS at White House forum
By Ed Kang
Environmental justice is an important part of the worker safety and training emphasis in programs Hughes and his staff oversee. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Under Jackson's leadership, environmental justice has become a higher priority for EPA. (Photo courtesy of EPA)
Sebelius underscored the importance of primary prevention in the pursuit of environmental justice. (Photo courtesy of HHS)
NIEHS Worker Education and Training Program Director Chip Hughes joined top-level policy and practice leaders Dec. 15 in Washington, D.C. for a historic collaboration on environmental justice issues.
The one-day forum, held in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and broadcast live on the Internet, allowed a national audience to interact with the highest levels of government on green jobs and energy, sustainability and development, and healthy communities. The forum focused on the current administration's commitment to ensuring that overburdened and low-income communities have the opportunity to enjoy the health and economic benefits of a clean environment.
Hosted by Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the forum assembled more than 100 environmental justice leaders from across the country with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson, Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Kathleen Sebelius, and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.
"The meeting brought not only agency leaders together, but also community institutions, as a meaningful display of knowledge-sharing," said Hughes. He was joined at the meeting by NIEHS grantees, including Robert Bullard, Ph.D., director of Clark Atlanta University's Environmental Justice Resource Center, and Beverly Wright, Ph.D., director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University(http://www.dscej.org/) .
The unfinished business of environmental justice
To open the meeting, Jackson reminded the audience that while issues of disparate impacts to low income and minority communities are not new, "environmental justice is our unfinished business." Since her appointment, Jackson has made environmental justice a priority at EPA, listing it as one of seven strategic priorities for the agency. As part of the "Environmental Justice Tour," she has joined members of the Congressional Black Caucus on visits to areas facing environmental distress.
"We work to make environmental justice part of everything we do. The federal government has a particular responsibility to underserved communities," Jackson stated. Her agency's Plan EJ2014 provides a roadmap for incorporating environmental justice into the core work of EPA.
Healthy communities and place-based initiatives
Secretary Sebelius spoke openly about the health implications of environmental justice. "Health hasn't always been the first issue you associate with environmental justice," she said. "There's a new understanding that some of the most important steps we can take to improve health have nothing to do with treating a disease or injury - they have to do with preventing those diseases and injuries in the first place."
Sebelius took the forum as an opportunity to preview new health reform legislation, a $15 billion Prevention and Public Health Fund that will invest in programs across the country to transform community health. The development of comprehensive strategies from promoting better nutrition for children to creating safer neighborhoods where people can walk can create empowerment zones that ultimately improve health.
Sebelius also recognized research into the connections between environment and health, and the work of NIEHS. "We're putting a special focus on collaborating with minority communities, whose health often suffers the most from environmental factors," she said.
"It shows that environmental justice is now a priority," said Hughes. "Agencies have been tackling environmental justice issues, but we now have more opportunities to collaborate and share effective strategies."
NIEHS staff and leadership, including Gwen Collman, Ph.D., John Balbus, M.D., Chip Hughes, Liam O'Fallon, and Sharon Beard, have been working with the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health to update and revise a Department-wide strategy addressing prevention and environmental justice issues.
(Ed Kang is a public affairs specialist in the Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)