The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new policy on working with tribes became official on July 24, as EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy signed off on the agency’s EPA Policy on Environmental Justice for Working with Federally Recognized Tribes and Indigenous Peoples.
The new policy focuses on environmental justice with an eye to supporting Indigenous Peoples, especially when it comes to the unique challenges they face in adapting to climate change. It also sees the issues in terms of civil rights, the EPA said in a statement.
“We’re just continuing, I hope, to show the tribes that … they’re a very unique partner of EPA and they deserve to know that EPA is meeting our trust responsibilities,” McCarthy told Indian Country Today Media Network, adding that another goal is to “recognize the traditional ecological knowledge that is available to us and that we have not always understood how to integrate into our policies.”
It is organized around 17 principles that will drive EPA interactions with tribes, McCarthy said. They include consulting with federally recognized tribes and providing “meaningful involvement opportunities” for Indigenous Peoples and others living throughout Indian country, as well as considering the potential impact of EPA actions when it comes to environmental or health concerns. Incorporating the perspective of tribes in the understanding of definitions of human health and the environment is another such principle.
Traditional Ecological Knowledge will also play a key role in the EPA’s environmental science, policy and decision-making processes, the agency said, and will take into account concerns regarding information on sacred sites, cultural resources and other traditional knowledge. Another cornerstone is maintaining relationships with Indigenous Peoples and communities “based upon mutual understanding and respect,” including “open communication and meaningful involvement” founded upon tribal self-determination.
The nearly 200-page policy has been in the works since 2011, and McCarthy's signing comes on the heels of $5 million in grants awarded to six institutions and groups to study several environmental health issues unique to tribes.
The efforts go hand-in-hand with President Barack Obama’s initiatives on climate change. On July 16 he made $10 million available to help tribes cope with climate change.
“All tribal and indigenous communities deserve environmental and public health protection. Through this agreement, we are reinforcing our commitment to tribal communities, especially in addressing issues of Environmental Justice,” McCarthy said in a statement. “We know that tribes are uniquely impacted by a changing climate, which highlights the importance of this agreement and other agency actions, including funding research through the STAR Tribal health grants.”