Students and Youth Leaders Question Feds on Environmental Justice Issues

In a live internet video discussion, a group of Occidental students and local youth leaders on Dec. 15 quizzed federal officials about how they will improve the health of their communities by decreasing pollution from refineries and power plants, improving access to healthy food, and addressing other environmental justice issues.


The five Occidental students and four youth leaders, gathered in a conference room at the College's Urban & Environmental Policy Institute, queried Lisa Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Nancy Sutley, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, at the White House. The federal officials also answered several questions posted on the White House's Facebook page.

"For too long, environmentalism was almost seen as a luxury item, but we now know that it's the basis for our prosperity," Jackson said in her opening remarks. "Clean air, clean water, clean land should be a given, but it's still unfinished business."

The youth leaders represented four local community organizations: Coalition for a Safe Environment, Communities for a Better Environment, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, and SCOPE/Apollo Alliance. Romel Pascual, Los Angeles' deputy mayor for the environment, and Robert Gottlieb, the Henry R. Luce Professor of Urban Environmental Studies and UEPI's director, introduced the students and youth leaders.

"These nine students weren't even born when the term ‘environmental justice' first emerged in the 1980s," Gottlieb said. "But they know from their daily lives what those issues are about. They're going to be the next generation of EJ leaders, and they will be a force."

Urban and environmental policy major Margeau Valteau '13, who was born and raised on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, witnessed environmental injustice in many forms. "From the hazardous effects of uranium mines to the many homes without electricity or running water, the Navajo people do not have access to basic human needs," she said. "Not only are these problems on the reservation ... but in under-represented communities [across] the United States."

Valteau asked Sutley why the Navajo Nation EPA, which is responsible for the environmental health of the reservation, does not have jurisdiction to enforce federal EPA laws.

"We still have tremendous challenges in Indian Country," Jackson acknowledged. "The Navajo Nation has put in place several of the laws needed to take over delegation of some [EPA] programs, and I am optimistic that we will continue to delegate full permitting and enforcement."

UEP major Kristen Leahy '11 asked Sutley how the federal government is supporting local food projects to build healthy environments throughout the United States. Sutley talked about the Child Nutrition Act, which was just signed by President Barack Obama '83, and a program by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create jobs by better connecting consumers with local farmers and producers, called "Know Your Food, Know Your Farmer."

When asked what she thought of Sutley's response, Leahy said that her answer was vague, but she was glad to hear from the administration and for the opportunity to push officials to think differently about important environmental justice concerns.

The 45-minute Web event was the White House's first-ever online forum on environmental justice. Its aim was to ensure that overburdened and low-income communities can enjoy the health and economic benefits of a clean environment. The video is archived and can be viewed at