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EPA works to remake troubled Office of Civil Rights

In the waning months of the Obama administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights took modest steps toward repairing its tattered image.

The office, which investigates complaints from communities alleging environmental racism, has issued new manuals to govern how cases are handled; given a strong rebuke to a state environmental agency; and rescinded a proposed rule that would have removed deadlines for resolving cases.

It would be easy to consider the flurry of activity a tacit commentary on the incoming Trump administration, but many of the changes have been in the works for months or even years. The timing was merely coincidental.

In eight years under Obama, the EPA “took steps that would lead to civil-rights compliance in the long run,” said Marianne Engelman Lado, visiting clinical professor of law at Yale Law School and a former attorney with the public-interest law firm Earthjustice, which lodged several complaints with the office on behalf of minority communities alleging discrimination. “But we may be waiting for our grandchildren before meaningful enforcement [occurs].”

A Center for Public Integrity investigation in 2015 revealed the office’s lackluster enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The analysis showed that the office hadn’t made a formal finding of discrimination in 22 years, despite having received hundreds of complaints. Last year, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights cited the Center’s work in a performance review that found the EPA was failing to meet its obligations under the act.

The EPA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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