Lessons from the EPA's Urban Waters Federal Partnership: Transformative Potential and Constraining Frames

Authors: Theresa Pendergrast*, Cornell University
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Development, Qualitative Research
Keywords: environmental justice, development studies, water politics, social movements, environmental sociology
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2019
Start / End Time: 2:00 PM / 3:40 PM
Room: Washington 6, Marriott, Exhibition Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


After the 2010 declaration of environmental justice (EJ) as an EPA-wide concern, several significant projects sought to create collaborations between federal and state government, local community activists, nonprofits, and private sector groups. One such program has been the Urban Waters Federal Partnership (UWFP), and since 2011, this partnership has expressed dedication to a range of EJ-oriented ‘improvements’, including greater citizen-led water quality monitoring, environmental justice education, ecological renewal, and economic viability in 19 different US cities. Reaction to this program has been mixed, with some community groups noting positive changes while others remaining deeply skeptical and dissatisfied. This paper draws on case studies in several UWFP-designated sites to explore the complex outcomes of this project and the contrasting views regarding its success. The research demonstrates how the UWFP program is a microcosm of the multiform and at times problematic consequences of the institutionalization of environmental justice. This paper maintains that the most transformative possibilities in state-civil partnership on EJ are sometimes thwarted because of particular ideologies, programmatic structures, and constraints on participation that reinforce power imbalances. Examining the inner-workings of one particular EPA program (here, the UWFP) on environmental justice can help illuminate how state and civil society agents are shaping not only each other but also the discourse on the future of EJ activism. This work also considers how communities might strategize their future engagements with the state for greater democratic, economic, and socio-ecological reform possibilities.

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