EPA says it will emphasize environmental justice, community engagement to promote equity

Air pollution is seen over a hazy downtown Phoenix on Jan. 2, 2020.
Air pollution is seen over a hazy downtown Phoenix on Jan. 2, 2020.

The Environmental Protection Agency has released what it calls an equity report emphasizing environmental justice and engagement with underserved communities.

The equity plan fulfills a requirement by the Biden administration for all agencies to assess whether its programs and policies perpetuate systemic barriers for people of color and other underserved groups.

The report further solidifies the agency’s stated goal of environmental justice. In the strategic four-year plan released this February, the agency lists environmental justice as priority #2 behind tackling climate change.

Environmental justice in practice means that, “everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the benefits of environmental resources and the decision-making process,” according to the report.

The report listed six priority areas for advancing environmental justice:

  • Studying the cumulative impacts of EPA decisions

  • Helping underserved communities report their experience to the EPA

  • Developing EPA’s internal capacity to engage with underserved communities

  • Strengthening EPA’s civil rights compliance

  • Integrating community science into EPA’s research and programs

  • Making EPA’s procurement and contracting more equitable

The equity report follows a September report the agency released on social vulnerability to climate change, adding to a body of scientific studies that find the effects of increasing climate will impact people of color the most.

The social vulnerability report determined six of the most salient impacts of climate change. Then it calculated where these climate impacts are most likely to occur. Finally, the EPA measured how likely socially vulnerable groups are to live in those areas, using Census data.

It found that with 2 degrees of warming, Black people are 34% more likely to live in areas with the highest projected increases in childhood asthma, Latinx people are 43% more likely to live in areas with the highest projected labor hour losses in work exposed to the weather and Indigenous people are 48% more likely to live in areas where the highest percentage of land is projected to be inundated by sea level rise.

The report bakes in accountability mechanisms into each priority area, assigning a staff member to look over the cumulative impacts priority and committing that the agency will share updates with the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council for others.

“I think that it’s a step in the right direction for EPA,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter. “The key will be making sure that it isn't a plan that just sits there. And that there really is that kind of accountability that they say they want to build into it.”

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Assessing the cumulative impacts of projects is something environmental activists have long called for. It would force regulators to assess a project’s overall cost to the environment, such as considering the number of existing industrial facilities in the area before granting a permit for a new one.

The agency also admits in the report that it hasn’t fully used its civil rights implementation and enforcement authority to enforce federal civil rights law, calling itself reactive instead of proactive, and attributing this to underfunding for the civil rights compliance office. It will take steps to proactively initiate compliance activities, the report states.

Notably, the agency mentions several times in the report the importance of meaningful engagement to making headway in their priority areas.

The EPA set a September 2023 deadline for short-term action after advocates at public hearings urged the agency to act quickly.

Goals for the short-term deadline include a framework to evaluate cumulative impacts of projects, guidance on civil rights compliance and a set of indicators to track how well the EPA eliminates disparities in environmental and public health conditions.

Longer-term goals, like actually implementing cumulative impacts analyses, could take several more years.

Several environmental justice advocates, including Rashaad Thomas, a Phoenix writer, said the EPA still isn’t moving fast enough.

“What I'm thinking is, in three to four years, how many Black and brown people are going to end up with cancer?" he said. "Or any other disease related to environmental justice?”

Zayna Syed is an environmental reporter for The Arizona Republic/azcentral. Follow her reporting on Twitter at @zaynasyed_ and send tips or other information about stories to zayna.syed@arizonarepublic.com.

Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: EPA report says it will stress environmental justice, equity