Fast Facts

Environmental justice seeks to address the disproportionately high health and environmental risks found among low-income and minority communities by seeking their fair treatment and involvement in environmental policy. California's mostly minority and low-income community of West Oakland, for example, is surrounded by 3 freeways and a port. Its residents are exposed to diesel air pollution 3 times higher than the surrounding area.

Most federal agencies have plans to address environmental justice issues, but few assessed their annual progress. We made 24 recommendations, including that agencies update their plans and report on progress.

West Oakland sits next to a major port and freeways. Up to 3,000 trucks a day visit the port.

Photograph of an industrial part of West Oakland near the port.

Photograph of an industrial part of West Oakland near the port.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

Most of the 16 agencies that are members of the interagency working group on environmental justice—created by Executive Order 12898 in 1994—reported taking some actions to identify and address environmental justice issues, such as creating data tools, developing policies or guidance, and building community capacity through small grants and training. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created a mapping tool that can help identify low-income and minority communities exposed to health or environmental risks. Several agencies, such as EPA and the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and the Interior, also developed policies or guidance to analyze environmental justice issues during environmental reviews or enforcement activities. Most of the agencies supported their efforts with funds and staff from related programs, but EPA and the Department of Energy provided funds ($8.3 million in fiscal year 2018) and staff specifically for environmental justice.

Agencies' progress toward environmental justice is difficult to gauge, however, because most do not have updated strategic plans and have not reported annually on their progress or developed methods to assess progress. As they agreed to do in a 2011 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), most of the agencies developed environmental justice strategic plans, but only six have updated them more recently. Few agencies have measures or methods for assessing progress, and the working group has not provided guidance to help agencies with such assessments. The number of agencies issuing annual progress reports has declined (see fig.). Updated strategic plans and annual progress reports, along with guidance on performance measures and methods, would help agencies provide essential information to assess their progress.

Number of Annual Progress Reports Issued by 16 Agencies from the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice since Fiscal Year 2012

The working group, chaired by EPA, has developed committees and written agreements to carry out its responsibilities to coordinate agencies' environmental justice efforts, but it is not carrying out several functions in the 1994 Executive Order. GAO has found that collaborative mechanisms, such as the working group, benefit from clear goals, but the working group's organizational documents do not contain clear strategic goals aligned to address the order. Clear strategic goals to carry out the executive order could enhance the group's strategic direction for intergovernmental environmental justice efforts.

Why GAO Did This Study

Environmental justice seeks to address the disproportionately high distribution of health and environmental risks among low-income and minority communities by seeking their fair treatment and meaningful involvement in environmental policy. In 1994, Executive Order 12898 directed 11 federal agencies to identify and address environmental justice issues related to their activities and tasked an interagency working group to coordinate federal environmental justice efforts. In 2011, 16 agencies, including the 11 original agencies, recommitted to planning and reporting on environmental justice efforts by signing an MOU.

GAO was asked to review federal environmental justice efforts. This report examines agencies' environmental justice actions, strategic plans and progress reports, and working group collaboration. GAO reviewed agency environmental justice plans, reports, and funding data; interviewed agency officials; and compared working group collaboration to leading collaborative practices.

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Recommendations

GAO is making 24 recommendations, including that agencies update environmental justice strategic plans and report on progress annually, and that EPA consult with other working group members to provide guidance on assessing progress and to set strategic goals. Of the 15 agencies with recommendations, eight agreed. Other agencies' responses included partial agreement, disagreement, and no comment. GAO continues to support its recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Commerce The Secretary of Commerce should update the department's environmental justice strategic plan. (Recommendation 1)
Open
As of July 2021, we are following up with the department. The department agrees with our recommendation and is working to implement it. We will continue to review the department's actions and provide updated information.
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment The Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment should update the department's environmental justice strategic plan. (Recommendation 2)
Open
In June 2021, the department stated that it will update its environmental justice strategic plan by July 30, 2021. GAO will continue to follow-up on this action.
Department of Education The Secretary of Education should update the department's environmental justice strategic plan. (Recommendation 3)
Closed - Not Implemented
In April 2020, Education stated that there are very few matters that come up under the Environmental Justice Memorandum of Understanding. As a result, officials said they had decided to withdraw from the MOU, but would keep in touch with the Environmental Protection Agency on issues that might arise.
Department of Homeland Security The Secretary of Homeland Security should update the department's environmental justice strategic plan. (Recommendation 4)
Open
As of June 2021, we are following up with the department. In comments on our report, the department agreed with this recommendation. We will continue to review the department's actions and update this information.
Department of Housing and Urban Development The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development should update the department's environmental justice strategic plan. (Recommendation 5)
Open
As of June 2021, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) officials stated that it agrees with GAO's recommendation and plans to update its strategic plan by the end of calendar year 2021. GAO will continue to review HUD's actions and provide updated information.
Department of Justice The Attorney General of the United States should update the department's environmental justice strategic plan. (Recommendation 6)
Open
In June 2021, the department commented that under Executive Order 14008 (January 2021), the Attorney General is required to take several actions which may necessitate revisions to its Environmental Justice Strategic Plan. These actions include coordination with EPA and other agencies, as appropriate, to develop a comprehensive environmental justice enforcement strategy. The department plans to review and update its Environmental Justice strategy, as needed, after directives from EO 14008 have been completed and after the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council has issued relevant guidance. GAO will continue to review the department's actions and provide updated information.
Department of Labor The Secretary of Labor should update the department's environmental justice strategic plan. (Recommendation 7)
Open
In June 2021, the Department of Labor (DOL) stated that it remains committed to environmental justice. According to DOL,, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which has been assigned responsibility for the Environmental Justice Interagency Council created under Executive Order 12898, is currently updating the implementing guidance for agencies regarding the development of environmental justice strategic plans. DOL stated that it is working closely on this update with CEQ, and will follow the guidance once it is issued. GAO will continue to review DOL's actions and provide updated information.
Small Business Administration The Administrator of the Small Business Administration should complete the agency's assessment of whether to participate in the 1994 Executive Order and the 2011 Memorandum of Understanding, and, if appropriate, develop an environmental justice strategic plan. (Recommendation 8)
Open
As of July 2021, we are following up with the agency. In its comments on our report, the agency agreed with our recommendation. We will continue to review the agency's actions to update its progress in implementing the recommendation.
Department of Veterans Affairs The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should update the department's environmental justice strategic plan. (Recommendation 9)
Open
In April 2020, the department committed to updating its environmental justice strategic plan and said that it will update its strategic plan pending the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) guidance on what agencies should include in their plans. It also set a goal of completing the update within 6 months of EPA's issuance of guidance. As of July 2021, the department said it is awaiting EPA guidance. We will continue to review the department's actions and update this information.
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of Agriculture should issue a progress report on the department's environmental justice efforts each year. (Recommendation 10)
Open
USDA agreed with our recommendation. As of June 2021, USDA plans to issue a progress report for fiscal year 2018 by September 2021, and to begin preparing progress reports for fiscal year 2019 and subsequent years with dedicated staff starting in fiscal year 2022. We will continue to review the department's actions and provide updated information.
Department of Commerce The Secretary of Commerce should issue a progress report on the department's environmental justice efforts each year. (Recommendation 11)
Open
As of July 2021, we are following up with the department. The department agreed with this recommendation. We will continue to review the department's actions and provide updated information.
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment The Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment should issue a progress report on the department's environmental justice efforts each year. (Recommendation 12)
Open
In June 2021, the department stated that it will produce a progress report by September 30, 2021. GAO will continue to follow up on this action.
Department of Education The Secretary of Education should issue a progress report on the department's environmental justice efforts each year. (Recommendation 13)
Closed - Not Implemented
In April 2020, Education stated that there are very few matters that come up under the Environmental Justice Memorandum of Understanding. As a result, officials said they had decided to withdraw from the MOU, but would keep in touch with the Environmental Protection Agency on issues that might arise.
Department of Health and Human Services The Secretary of Health and Human Services should issue a progress report on the department's environmental justice efforts each year. (Recommendation 14)
Open
As of June 2021, we are following up with the department. In comments on our report, the department agreed with this recommendation. We will continue to review the department's actions and provide updated information.
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should issue a progress report on the department's environmental justice efforts each year. (Recommendation 15)
Closed - Implemented
In January 2020, Department of Energy officials stated that they had issued progress reports for fiscal years 2017 and 2018 and would issue progress reports annually after this point. In July 2020, DOE issued a progress report for fiscal year 2019.
Department of Housing and Urban Development The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development should issue a progress report on its environmental justice efforts each year. (Recommendation 16)
Open
As of June 2021, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) officials stated that they agree with GAO's recommendation and plan to issue annual progress reports. GAO will continue to review HUD's actions and provide updated information.
Department of the Interior The Secretary of the Interior should issue a progress report on the department's environmental justice efforts each year. (Recommendation 17)
Open
As of July 2021, we are following up with Interior. In May 2020, the department reported that it had issued guidance in March 2020 to its bureaus on how to report on environmental justice activities during each fiscal year. The memo asks the bureaus to report activities under the five strategic goals in its environmental justice plan, consistent with our recommendation. We will continue to review the department's actions and update this information.
Department of Labor The Secretary of Labor should issue a progress report on the department's environmental justice efforts each year. (Recommendation 18)
Open
In June 2021, the Department of Labor (DOL) stated that it remains committed to environmental justice. According to DOL, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which has been assigned responsibility for the Environmental Justice Interagency Council created under Executive Order 12898, is currently updating the implementing guidance for agencies regarding the development of environmental justice strategic plans. DOL stated that it is working closely on this update with CEQ, will follow the guidance once it is issued, and will update its progress as necessary to reflect actions taken with respect to updating the strategic plan. GAO will continue to review DOL's actions and provide updated information.
Department of Transportation The Secretary of Transportation should issue a progress report on the department's environmental justice efforts each year. (Recommendation 19)
Open
As of July 2021, we are following up with the department. In February 2020, the department stated that it partially agreed with this recommendation. It stated that it would update its progress reports as needed. As we stated in our report, leading practices for performance management indicate that annual performance reporting helps an agency to keep track of and achieve its goals. We will continue to review the department's actions and update this information.
Department of Veterans Affairs The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should issue a progress report on the department's environmental justice efforts each year. (Recommendation 20)
Open
In April 2020, the department committed to issuing annual progress reports. The department also stated that it will use EPA or Interagency Working Group (IWG) guidance on methods agencies could use to assess progress towards their environmental justice goals. It stated that it would begin issuing progress reports following issuance of such guidance and per reporting schedule established by the Environmental Justice IWG. As of July 2021, the department said it is awaiting EPA guidance. We will continue to review the department's actions and update this information.
Environmental Protection Agency The Administrator of EPA, as chair of the working group, should develop guidance for agencies on what they should include in their environmental justice strategic plans. (Recommendation 21)
Open
In May 2021, EPA stated that the Environmental Justice Interagency Working Group (EJ IWG) no longer exists and that federal environmental justice efforts are being organized under the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) under Executive Order 14008. An official said that EPA is working with CEQ to carry out three main efforts under the Executive Order: develop an environmental justice screening tool, identify funding opportunities, and identify areas to update the previous Executive Order 12898. GAO will meet with CEQ officials to determine the extent to which the recommendation made to EPA are relevant to CEQ's efforts.
Environmental Protection Agency The Administrator of EPA, as chair of the working group, should develop guidance or create a committee of the working group to develop guidance on methods the agencies could use to assess progress toward their environmental justice goals. (Recommendation 22)
Open
In May 2021, EPA stated that the Environmental Justice Interagency Working Group (EJ IWG) no longer exists and that federal environmental justice efforts are being organized under the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) under Executive Order 14008. An official said that EPA is working with CEQ to carry out three main efforts under the Executive Order: develop an environmental justice screening tool, identify funding opportunities, and identify areas to update the previous Executive Order 12898. GAO will meet with CEQ officials to determine the extent to which the recommendation made to EPA are relevant to CEQ's efforts.
Environmental Protection Agency The Administrator of EPA, as chair of the working group, and in consultation with the working group, should clearly establish, in its organizational documents, strategic goals for the federal government's efforts to carry out the 1994 Executive Order. (Recommendation 23)
Open
In May 2021, EPA stated that the Environmental Justice Interagency Working Group (EJ IWG) no longer exists and that federal environmental justice efforts are being organized under the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) under Executive Order 14008. An official said that EPA is working with CEQ to carry out three main efforts under the Executive Order: develop an environmental justice screening tool, identify funding opportunities, and identify areas to update the previous Executive Order 12898. GAO will meet with CEQ officials to determine the extent to which the recommendation made to EPA are relevant to CEQ's efforts.
Environmental Protection Agency The Administrator of EPA, as chair of the working group, and in consultation with the other working group members, should update the 2011 Memorandum of Understanding and renew the agencies' commitments to participate in the interagency collaborative effort and the working group. (Recommendation 24)
Open
In May 2021, EPA stated that the Environmental Justice Interagency Working Group (EJ IWG) no longer exists and that federal environmental justice efforts are being organized under the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) under Executive Order 14008. An official said that EPA is working with CEQ to carry out three main efforts under the Executive Order: develop an environmental justice screening tool, identify funding opportunities, and identify areas to update the previous Executive Order 12898. GAO will meet with CEQ officials to determine the extent to which the recommendation made to EPA are relevant to CEQ's efforts.

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