The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Office of Land and Emergency Management recently released its draft Environmental Justice Action (EJ) Plan. What's inside?
First, some background: After entering office, President Biden signed a pair of executive orders directing federal agencies to pursue environmental justice. The first focuses on narrowing entrenched inequities furthered by standing agency policy, and the second orders agencies to shrink their climate-harming footprints. Together, these orders offer the public an immense opportunity to combat environmental injustice.
The EPA has since directed its Office of Land and Emergency Management (OLEM) to evaluate current and best practices to meet the requirements of each executive order. As the office charged with overseeing the primary programs managing and containing hazardous substances, its policies hold great potential in mitigating risks faced by at-risk communities.
The office's EJ Action Plan lays out four goals to guide and motivate its push toward equity and climate justice. These include: strengthening compliance with cornerstone environmental statutes and civil rights laws, integrating environmental justice considerations into OLEM's regulatory process, improving communications and collaborations with communities in carrying out OLEM policies, and carrying out Biden's Justice 40 initiative to deliver 40 percent of clean energy and climate benefits to disadvantaged communities.
While well-intentioned, these aspirational goals require filling out.
Filling Key Gaps
While EPA makes much-needed commitments to strengthen existing measures, points of concern remain, specifically relating to risk management and regulated infrastructure. The EPA aims to strengthen risk prevention and emergency response measures with an environmental justice focus. To enhance accident prevention and response, and reduce severe releases, the plan should strengthen and expand Risk Management Program measures to mitigate, monitor, and manage natural hazard-induced technological disasters (aka “natech” disasters), which remain high and growing in many communities at risk of climate impacts.
Additionally, aboveground storage tanks (ASTs) are not held to the same regulation and management standards as underground storage tanks and are omitted from the plan. Given the immense hazards they pose, particularly to low-income communities of color, EPA should include protections and prevention measures that address AST risks and incorporate input from those impacted by worst-case discharges.
One of the plan's stated goals is to compile and critically evaluate current assessment tools, methods, and strategies. To improve their responsiveness and equity, future OLEM assessments should consider the cumulative impacts of investment strategies, as concurrent risks are uniquely prevalent in environmental justice communities.
Assessments should also be wary of monetary proxies to weigh the relative value of environmental benefits against economic benefits of polluting. If the “polluters pay” principle is to hold serious sway, OLEM must move beyond economic-oriented, case-by-case assessments. Under a more comprehensive, place-focused assessment strategy, the harmful impacts of anaerobic digestion technologies used by agribusiness and plastic incineration infrastructure would likely outweigh any purported economic benefit of projected investments.
The goal of community engagement and empowerment runs throughout the EJ Action Plan as well as Biden's executive orders. However, it's unclear how agencies will overcome barriers to community involvement in the regulatory process given their current strategies. To address this disconnect, OLEM should dedicate resources to developing regulatory expertise within affected communities, collaborate with trusted local leaders, and build local leadership capable of maintaining working partnerships.
Community Input and Review
OLEM's EJ Action Plan comes as climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of weather events that jeopardize communities and infrastructure. As a result, the regulations enacted under this initiative have far-reaching implications.
Nearly 200 million people live in “worst-case [spill] zones” from facilities regulated under EPA's Risk Management Program. Nearly 4,000 of those facilities are exposed to risks of wildfire, storm surge, flooding, and sea level rise. In a single 10-year period, more than half a million people were injured, killed, or forced to shelter in place or evacuate after a chemical release at an RMP facility. These populations are disproportionately low-income, linguistically isolated, and people of color. Without more stringent RMP measures and more regulated facilities, environmental degradation, public health disasters, and environmental injustices will likely increase.
Fortunately, OLEM is accepting public input on how the plan can achieve these goals. Community input is foundational to environmental justice. Written feedback will be reviewed until April 30, and online and in-person outreach sessions will be held throughout the year. Concerned communities and organizations must act now.