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Bloomberg BNA reporter Rachel Leven spoke with Matt Tejada, the director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Environmental Justice, to discuss several recent releases of major documents and tools by Tejada's office. Tejada specifically discussed the significance of EPA's final guidance on consideration of environmental justice in rulemaking, EJSCREEN (its mapping tool that identifies areas with potential environmental quality issues and vulnerable populations) and the agency's draft EJ 2020 Action Agenda and how these tools and documents provide a basis for moving environmental justice forward nationwide.
This interview had been edited for clarity and length.
EJSCREEN was released in 2015 instead of 2014, in part due to concerns by regulatory partners. How did your office work to address those concerns before releasing the final EJSCREEN tool?
It had a lot to do with the fact that we had received valuable feedback from state and local agencies during the engagement period we started last summer, and it did cause us to re-calibrate our time frame around when we thought we were going to release the tool. A lot of that [has to do with] getting the feedback in and then taking the time to figure out its implications, not necessarily from a decision-making perspective, but from a logistical perspective. This is a very complicated, data-driven tool, so every decision has a whole cascade of—well, this server is in this data set and this map function and everything else—so every time we had one of those considerations based on feedback, it just took time to work through….
But we really valued the feedback that we got from our state and local partners, and I think in the end we have a much stronger tool and [had] a much stronger release of that tool than we would have had if we did not go through that process[.] EJSCREEN is stronger and, I think, will be more widely deployed and used outside the agency. But also it was just a great experience being able to work with that many partners outside the EPA on environmental justice issues. I think it's going to pay a lot of dividends going forward as we work on the EJ 2020 Action Agenda and other elements of environmental justice that we've really developed some strong, positive relationships with our co-regulatory partners on environmental justice.
Can you provide an example of a change that you made in response to the feedback by state or local regulatory agencies?
[O]ne of the earlier comments that we got back from the state agencies is [that] the shapefiles [a geospatial data format file] for nonattainment status were old. There were some marginal differences between the shapefiles that we had loaded into the tool and the newer nonattainment designations under the national ambient air quality standards. Those [appear to] be a fairly simple thing to fix if you're on the outside looking at a computer. Actually, going through the process ... take[s] some time…. A fairly simple and straight-forward request that, as soon as it was made we were immediately agreeable to because it was a common-sense request, took some time to actually make that happen and have it show up on the other end of the tool.
Environmental justice advocates have called for an accompanying policy for EJSCREEN regarding how it will be used to protect overburdened communities. Is the EPA considering that?
Right now we have some definitions of the ways that [EJSCREEN] is going to be used inside the agency. I think what we really want folks to understand or appreciate is that the use of the tool is going to change across the agency, whether its in a Superfund context to a brownfields context ... or water permitting [versus] air permitting or in different sorts of rulemakings. Com[ing] up with a single policy I don't think really serves the purpose of integrating the tool very well and very centrally into the different business practices of the agency.
[W]e already have been working with the individual programs to develop their unique uses of the tool…. Then [we will] work with them to make sure that those well-developed, unique uses are integrated in the actual business practices of headquarters and across the regions.
Let's talk about your final guidance on considering environmental justice during the development of regulatory actions. How does it enhance the EPA's environmental justice efforts?
From one perspective, it's just great that we've finalized the guidance. It's a visible and very clear step forward that this agency has committed to considering environmental justice in the development of rules, but we've actually been doing this for quite a while. Even though this guidance was just finalized, we've been operating with the interim guidance for many years and have been integrating it into some very important rulemakings, like the definition of solid waste rule, the refinery rule [and] worker protection standards.
The agency, particularly in the last year, has had a number of rules come out that are of central significance to environmental justice, [so] it's been great that we already have a lot of practice … so that environmental justice could be centrally considered and well-integrated into those rules….
This guidance says these are recommendations not requirements. How often do you expect to be using this guidance? Could it result in more analyses that are similar to the one used in the definition of solid waste rule?
It could. It's something that we'll be handling on a rule-by-rule basis. From the beginning, we want to make sure that we are understanding which rules are of central environmental justice-significance so that we can make sure that we are doing the right sort of analysis or taking the right approach with that rule and using the guidance and the steps that are in the guidance to incorporate environmental justice during the rule creation process. It'll really be on a rule-by-rule basis and making the call as we're crafting each rule that we're incorporating environmental justice adequately when and where it needs to be. That's part of the strength of the guidance is its not trying to give a one-size-fits-all approach for every single rule that's going to come out the agency. I think that would actually be counter to having a thoughtful and well-founded approach to how we actually incorporate environmental justice into each of the rules.
Why was there a roughly four-year delay in finalizing this guidance if this was something your agency has been doing for years?
I wasn't really around four years ago when those decisions were made. I think the biggest thing that I've learned though in my little over two years at this agency is that things take as long as they need to take. Even though a lot of times, maybe almost every time, there's a delay from when we think things are going to come out, I think that it's for very good reasons inside the agency because we want to make sure that if there's a public engagement aspect to it, which there normally is, that we have done a really thorough job of engaging with the public, with getting feedback from our various stakeholders, of course particularly from environmental justice groups and community organizations. We [also] really go through the rounds here inside the agency, making sure that folks have had an opportunity to look at a product or look at a document and give feedback on it.
I think it's great that we are so ambitious with the deadlines that we set for ourselves because it shows that we are committed to environmental justice at the most senior levels in this agency and that we want to put aggressive deadlines on things because we want to move the ball forward on environmental justice. Then once we actually get into the work, we want to do everything we can to make sure we have as good a product as possible, and sometimes that means we have to take a longer period of time developing and delivering it than we had originally thought.
The agency says in its draft EJ 2020 agenda that it plans to move forward on environmental justice in permitting activities. What is the status of those efforts?
As with everything we've done, right now we've done a lot to move the ball forward on the public engagement aspect of permitting and community participation in the permitting process. Right now we're working a lot, especially with our regional offices, to kind of frame-up what the next step in considering environmental justice in permitting is. That's going to take some time. We have a lot of involvement from particularly the regional permitting shops in trying to figure out exactly what that means and what the process is going to be as we develop the details underlying EJ in permitting and piloting that perhaps for a while before we go back and reconsider what the notions are right now.
Industry has been concerned in the past that these efforts could slow down permitting. How is the EPA considering that?
We always take that into consideration, I think. We don't want to create a process that is just so unworkable that it breaks down. But I think what we normally want to remind folks of in those instances is that if you do environmental justice and if you do it well and if you do it early, we've seen that it actually makes processes finish faster and finish with a better result, not just for corporations or for cities, but for [affected] communities….
Anything else you would like to add or emphasize?
I really hope that folks get the continuum between Plan EJ 2014 and the EJ 2020 Action Agenda. The EJ 2020 is building off of that Plan EJ strategy, which was looking inside the agency, trying to fill some critical gaps in what we mean when we talk about environmental justice and what tools we need to consider environmental justice. Now we're moving up-and-out from there and implementing that more thoroughly, making use of those tools, making sure that the guidances are regularly deployed within the agency, but we also want to work with our partners so that we can take those lessons and take those tools and find a broader application of them across the United States in a collaborative way, in the spirit of partnership, and working with our partners so that we can keep moving environmental justice forward throughout the United States.
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