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By Stephen Lee
Sept. 27 — State agencies are finding themselves having to convince not just residents but also local businesses about the environmental justice work they undertake, a panel of agency heads said at an Environmental Council of the States meeting Sept. 26 in Wheeling, W.Va.
“Businesses don’t want to be seen [as being] in an area that is disadvantaged for fear that they would be blamed for creating the disadvantage,” said panelist Matthew Rodriquez, head of the California Environmental Protection Agency. “And there is concern that if you identified an area that was disadvantaged, basically it was going to lead to redlining, and nobody is going to go into those areas.”
In response, Rodriquez has taken on the job of explaining to businesses that California EPA is simply trying to target its programs to areas that need them.
“If [businesses] are concerned that we’re going to identify an area that is struggling with environmental issues and circle black helicopters around it and enforce all the laws vigorously in this area, that will chase businesses out,” Rodriquez said.
Taking a step further, Chuck Carr Brown, secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality, said on the panel that he considers companies to be in full compliance only if they’re doing meaningful environmental justice outreach with the community.
Brown said he expects companies to think about ways they can enhance the quality of life for nearby residents, mulling such possibilities as health screening, air monitoring and job training.
Moreover, even if a company is in full compliance with the law, the Department of Environmental Quality can still persuade them to be more responsive to local environmental justice needs, Brown said.
“Even though I don’t have a stick to wave, they understand and they listen,” he said.
The agency chiefs also said states are growing more mindful of the real-world barriers that prevent some communities from attaining environmental justice.
Most of the steps taken so far have come in the form of small tweaks rather than sweeping programmatic changes, but they have made a measurable difference, said the panelists.
In Colorado, for example, the Department of Public Health and Environment has had success convincing local residents about the environmental health hazards they face by enlisting on-staff medical doctors, rather than regulatory staffers, to explain the issues, said panel moderator Martha Rudolph, the agency’s director of environmental programs.
“When someone talks to them about the health impacts of something, they trust a doctor more than they do a lawyer,” Rudolph said.
Similarly, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection is holding program review meetings in the affected communities themselves, “rather than always in Boston,” and translation services are available if that community’s predominant language isn’t English, said panel member Martin Suuberg, DEP commissioner.
It also strengthened its ties with local governments. For example, in Worcester, Mass., the department has received tips about local environmental problems from building inspectors, fire departments and conservation commissions, Suuberg said.
In cases where there is no community organization to engage with, state agencies essentially have had to build their own. California accomplishes that with seed money grants maxing out at $50,000, Rodriquez said.
California also invests funding from its cap-and-trade program in disadvantaged communities, according to Rodriquez. Once that effort began, “there were a whole lot of communities that claimed they were far more disadvantaged than we had identified,” he said.
Later this week, California EPA will issue a report detailing the results of joint workshops with the community it recently conducted in Fresno and Los Angeles.
“I, sitting in Sacramento, really can’t understand exactly all the problems and identify where there are issues,” Rodriquez said. “I really need to go down and talk to the locals.”
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