After Harsh Environmental Justice Reviews, EPA Gets Some Praise

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By Rachel Leven

Oct. 27 — The Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice strategy, released Oct. 27, showed the agency could be ready to take aggressive steps to help communities overburdened with environmental pollution, some advocates said.

“The way in which EJ 2020 sets goals and is specific about measurements and does so also in the enforcement context is an order of magnitude ahead of what they’ve done before,” Marianne Engelman Lado, a senior staff attorney for Earthjustice, told Bloomberg BNA. “If those goals are fully funded and implemented by the next administration, we would be in a very different place than we are today.”

Released weeks after a federal commission said the agency had “failed miserably” in protecting communities overburdened with pollution, the EPA EJ 2020 Action Agenda included “ambitious,” measurable goals toward ratcheting down disparate pollution, advocates said.

Agency Needs Help With Strategy

The strategy was released the day after a senior EPA official told justice advocates at a national training conference in Arlington, Va., that their voices would be essential to keeping this agenda at the top of the agency’s list.

“We need your help to make sure that this stays on the front burner in the next year and beyond,” said Charles Lee, the agency’s deputy associate assistant administrator for environmental justice.

Environmental hazards such as toxic waste sites are often located in areas where minorities, low-income populations or indigenous peoples live, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recently said the EPA is failing at its efforts to protect those communities.

The strategy, which has been in the works for more than a year, lays out how the EPA intends to protect these communities through 2020.

Plan Aims to Reduce Disparities

The EJ 2020 Action Agenda, which builds on a plan from 2014, broadly aims to reduce environmental pollution disparities in overburdened communities through policy, collaboration with partners and measuring the progress on specific justice challenges.

The strategy sets out environmental justice goals in eight areas: rulemaking, permitting, compliance and enforcement, science, states and local governments, federal agencies, community-based work and tribes and indigenous peoples.

The version issued Oct. 27 included the widely lauded goal of identifying 100 communities that are most overburdened with pollution and directing enforcement resources toward them.

Challenges Identified

The plan identifies four environmental justice challenges on which to “demonstrate progress” through 2020: addressing issues related to lead disparities, drinking water, air quality and hazardous waste sites. The EPA will set plans and metrics for these areas and annually evaluate the progress it has made in public reports.

“In a period of increasing challenges related to climate change and crumbling infrastructure, our capacity to confront our obstacles depends on the strength of our partnerships,” Gina McCarthy, the EPA administrator, said in a blog post Oct. 27. “EJ 2020 provides a roadmap for us to move forward, together, in a more productive and holistic way.”

Updated Language

The final action agenda included updated language in how EPA discusses Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which bars federal funding recipients from discriminating or having a discriminatory impact on communities based on race, color or national origin.

“It still needs to be strengthened … but it is significant that they re-wrote it,” said Lado. “It may seem like we’re struggling to find nuggets to be hopeful about, but I think given the poor record of EPA in the past on civil rights, the fact that the EPA is acknowledging that they need to coordinate and collaborate and that they will report publicly is significant.”

States Praise Plan

Several state environmental agency leaders broadly praised the environmental justice agenda’s focus on state partnerships.

John Stine, Environmental Council of the States president and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency commissioner, said in a statement that he appreciated the “increased acknowledgment of the role of states as co-regulators, our shared responsibility, and the value of collaboration as partners” on justice issues.

But Mike Ewall, founder and director of the Energy Justice Network, told Bloomberg BNA the “only meaningful part of EPA’s ‘EJ’ plan is that the agency hopes to equally enforce existing laws as the agency should have been doing for decades.”

“Any [environmental justice] plan necessarily falls short because agencies don’t have the political will to say ‘no’ to unjust polluting development,” Ewall said. “Real EJ policies would mandate a shift from harmful technologies to clean and just alternatives for all.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Rachel Leven in Washington at rleven@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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