WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration has for the first time agreed to investigate complaints that states are violating the civil rights of blacks by permitting industrial pollution in their neighborhoods.
In a step that opens new avenues for legal challenges to the placement of hazardous waste sites and other pollution sources, the Environmental Protection Agency's office of civil rights notified Louisiana and Mississippi last month that it had opened investigations under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars racial discrimination in federally supported programs.
Blacks in those states contend that state decisions involving hazardous waste treatment plants have the effect of unfairly exposing them to more toxic pollution than whites. They say that the states' permit procedures, which are supported with federal money, are partly to blame.
In recent years, a great deal of data has been collected suggesting that racial minorities are disproportionately exposed to air pollution, hazardous wastes, pesticides and the like. But federal environmental laws do not directly address racial disparities, so efforts to block pollution permits by claiming discrimination have proved to be difficult.
For example, when blacks from the communities of Genesee and Flint, Mich., asked the EPA's board of appeals to block construction of an incinerator in a predominantly black neighborhood, the board rejected the appeal. An administrative law judge ruled in September that the Clean Air Act did not provide grounds for racial distinctions to affect decisions about the location of such operations.
The new tactic of using the Civil Rights Act, while still untested in court, would allow appeals without requiring changes to environmental laws like the Clean Air Act.
Even when decisions are made on the basis of such factors as the cost of land, population density, geological conditions or for other reasons not directly connected to race, the Civil Rights Act leaves room to challenge actions that have the effect of discriminating, according to lawyers involved in the cases.
Environmental and civil rights groups have been urging the administration to use the civil rights law in environmental cases. The Mississippi case was called to the environmental agency's attention by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which urged Carol M. Browner, the agency's administrator, to begin a high-level review of the state's hazardous waste permit program.
"I don't think that there is any doubt that low-income and minority communities have borne the brunt of our industrial life style," Ms. Browner said yesterday.
The EPA's decision to open the civil rights investigations is the latest sign of the administration's broad effort to make racial equality a keystone of its environmental policies.
Within a few weeks, the White House is expected to issue an executive order instructing all federal agencies to make equal treatment of racial groups an important consideration in environmental decisions.