The EPA is working to stiffen its enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which broadly forbids discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin, the agency’s top lawyer said Tuesday.
“There is a significant amount of work in terms of addressing the number of complaints and reviews that have been submitted” under Title VI, Jeffrey Prieto, general counsel of the Environmental Protection Agency, said at a conference hosted by the American Law Institute.
The EPA is also developing training and doing outreach to bulk up its civil rights work, Prieto said.
One of the key ways the agency must address Title VI is in assuring federally funded groups don’t unlawfully discriminate—a critical concern given that the EPA is poised to send out more than $50 billion in new grant funding under the bipartisan infrastructure law.
Prieto’s remarks amplify comments made in November by Lilian Dorka, the EPA’s director of external civil rights, who said the agency would switch from mostly reacting to complaints to a “more proactive program” under civil rights laws.
Historically, the EPA hasn’t always fully used its authority of Title VI, Dorka said in November. She said her team was asking staff to identify how the agency could improve Title VI compliance in planning, guidance, directives, and permitting.
The civil rights work also pairs with EPA Administrator Michael Regan’s emphasis on environmental justice, which Prieto called a “true priority” of the agency.
The Biden administration is working on a long-awaited screening tool that can identify neighborhoods suffering from environmental neglect. Prieto said the administration is “building upon what has already been done and trying to improve upon that, as opposed to trying to do something and starting over.”
Some environmental justice advocates have grown frustrated, saying the location of vulnerable communities is already well-known.
Prieto also acknowledged the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the Office of General Counsel, nodding to the reality that most EPA staffers have been working remotely, and that the agency’s unions have resisted calls to return to the office.
“As we enter back into whatever the new normal would be, I look forward to working with our union partners to establish and create an office that, frankly, has learned from the past two years and is able to take the best of what we’ve learned and to adapt into what we will be doing in the future,” he said.