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Environmental Justice – New Considerations for Contractors

Environmental Justice – New Considerations for Contractors

The EPA has announced that equity, environmental justice, and civil rights compliance are being incorporated as distinct and core goals of EPA’s multiyear strategic plan. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), low-income, minority, Tribal, and Indigenous communities are more likely to be impacted by environmental hazards and more likely to live near contaminated properties.  In response, EPA has sought to strengthen the protection of environmental and public health in underserved communities with their Environmental Justice (EJ) program, partnering with state and local stakeholders. EPA Launches New National Office Dedicated to Advancing Environmental Justice and Civil Rights | US EPA

With the Infrastructure Law and the Build Back Better agenda, EPA’s focus has been on historic investments in water infrastructure, Superfund, Brownfields, and in air quality improvements that will lead to public health protections in communities.  In 2023, EPA is to deliver tools and metrics for EPA and its Tribal, state, local, and community partners to advance environmental justice and external civil rights compliance. EPA is to develop and implement a cumulative impacts framework by September 30, 2023.  In addition, EPA will issue guidance on external civil rights compliance, establish a set of indicators to track EPA’s performance in eliminating disparities in environmental and public health conditions, and train staff and partners on how to use these resources in the same timeframe.

Environmental Justice is not new, but what is new is this administration’s focus on advancing environmental justice and civil rights in the context of environmental permitting. It appears that EPA is focusing on certain communities that it considers particularly overburdened (1) based on the understanding of historic or current environmental and health issues, and/or (2) EPA’s concentrating on matters that have the highest profile.   As part of its commitment to protect overburdened communities against disproportionate environmental health impacts, EPA has a commitment to account for cumulative hazards in permitting decisions with the framework guidance to be implemented by September 2023.

State environmental permitting appears to be a relevant target for EPA as it repeatedly raised EJ and civil rights concerns in the context of state permitting decisions affecting EJ populations.  Some states have passed EJ laws and regulations mandating cumulative risk assessments and imposing requirements that go beyond the federal environmental laws.  It is important to understand EJ actions in these states for future impact.

Environmental Justice Tools

EPA and states have created tools to tackle critical issues involving environmental justice (EJ) such as environmental, socioeconomic demographic information to identify communities that are most affected by pollution.  Supporting environmental justice is EJSCREEN – a mapping and screening tool providing EPA with a nationally consistent dataset and approach for combining environmental and demographic indicators. A geographic area is selected, and the demographic and environmental information is provided for that area.

EJScreen provides 12 environmental justice and supplemental indices that can be combined with a single environmental indicator such as proximity to traffic.   This tool can assist in identifying communities that may have a high combination of environmental burdens and vulnerable populations. Information is displayed in color-coded maps, bar charts, and standard reports. The information can be used to assist efforts to protect human health and the environment in communities disproportionately impacted by pollution.

EPA uses EJScreen as a preliminary step when considering environmental justice in certain situations. The agency uses it to screen for areas that may be candidates for additional consideration, analysis or outreach as EPA develops programs, policies and activities that may affect communities. In the past, the agency employed EJ screening tools in a wide variety of circumstances.

Along with EJScreen other tools can also be applied to address risks to communities that include informing outreach and engagement practices and implementing EJ criteria in permitting, enforcement and compliance, retrospective reporting, and geographically based initiatives – among others. Office of Environmental Justice in Action (epa.gov)

QTS Group is expert at helping our contractor or construction clients anticipate change implications, manage risks, and achieve compliance.  Let us know how we can assist your company.