Advancing Environmental Justice through the National Environmental Policy Act

[music] Kedric Payne: So I’m in Memphis, Tennessee
where I grew up with my father, and we’re going down this road that we rarely traveled
because it really didn’t go too many places. And we’re going there and it ends right
at a park. And he said, “This is the ‘Highway to
Nowhere.’” And I soon learned that the issue was that,
this was not just a dead end road; this really represented the uprooting of a community to
him. That road was Interstate 40. When it was constructed in
the late 1960s it went through Nashville where my father went to college. And he recalled that they built the road through
a minority community — even though there was a lot of opposition to building that road
directly through a community. And clearly what you’d think would happen,
happened. You had many families displaced, you had businesses
that ended up suffering, and then for the people who were brave enough to just stay
there, their homes were just in direct proximity to this highway. But when it got to Memphis, Tennessee, there
was a lot of opposition — again — but, this time not about a minority community, but about
this park. The city zoo was in the park and people did
not want the animals to be displaced, and they did not want the animals to be subjected
to air pollution. So the road was rerouted. As a result, you have resentment that goes generations that not only is for those folks who were there at that time but years later they will continue to distrust those who made such a decision and feel as though they don’t count. [music] Suzi Ruhl: Environmental Justice has historically
been about the fair treatment and the meaningful involvement of minority, low-income, and tribal
populations in government decisions across the spectrum of those government decisions – whether
it’s permitting, whether it’s rule making, whether it’s environmental reviews. The National Environmental Policy Act is an
important statute that is really meeting the heart of the Environmental Justice concerns,
which relate to making sure those people who are affected by particular actions are part
of the decision-making process. We created a NEPA committee comprised of the
members of the federal family. And we embraced the notion that we were a
community of practice that we all brought something to the table. Chris French: The National Environmental Policy
Act is critical for us because it is that place where we’re able to clearly describe
and disclose why we’re making the decisions we’re making, what sort of thinking we’ve
put behind those, what’s informed those decisions, and what sort of considerations
we’ve taken. It’s a way for us to be transparent with the
public that we serve. Suzi Ruhl: And so we’re not only working within the federal family to help them understand how to effectively consider Environmental Justice from the front end, we’re also working with the external stakeholders, with the community organizations and get everyone to the table at the front end to be able to identify the issues, determine what alternatives exist and also to think about, well, if there are going to be some impacts, how do we mitigate them. Kedric Payne: NEPA wasn’t around when the
situation I just described happened. But now that you have these laws, if you have
people who go through the required analysis, follow the law, follow the guidance — particularly
when it comes to Environmental Justice — then it will serve its purpose. Chris French: When we’re talking with a
third party that comes to us and wants to apply for a permit or wants to apply for doing
work on national forests, often they’re thinking just about the work that they’re
doing. But when we put that into the broader mission
that we serve, the broader context, whether we’re talking about the impacts that activity
has on ecological conditions across national forests, or the impacts it may have on communities,
local communities, through the lens of Environmental Justice. When you talk about how their actions can
impact people, people understand that. Suzi Ruhl: And so we developed this protocol,
this Promising Practices, that helps guide the practitioners on how they can do their
job more effectively and efficiently. Kedric Payne: The Promising Practices document
is primarily an excellent example of how there is a commitment to make sure that we don’t
repeat the mistakes of the past. To make sure that now we’re going to consider
the best practices among all agencies when it comes to Environmental Justice, and making
sure that the process is consistent. Kedric Payne: If you green light a project
without considering Environmental Justice — without considering NEPA — you are almost
guaranteeing that you will have opposition from the people who live there who feel as
though their concerns were not considered. Suzi Ruhl: And what’s very exciting is that
we’re having these outside external stakeholders actually come to us and ask us for help in
how they navigate their world. It’s also an important value that we realize,
is that while people do like to have concrete, specific answers, in the world of Environmental
Justice, in the world of environmental decision-making – the answers aren’t always clear and
distinct – and we’re helping people to understand that sometimes it’s the question
that’s more important than the answer. [music]

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