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How prioritizing environmental justice in project planning can reduce discrimination

February 14, 2023

By Robert Esenwein

Federal action is helping bring all voices to the table in land-use decisions. What does it mean for development?

Environmental justice (EJ) offers a framework for evaluating the impact of development on communities. It focuses on those living in underserved areas and facing systemic discrimination. It’s often in these areas that projects like waste facilities or other sources of pollution exist.

This framework helps inform land-use decisions to curb harmful environmental effects. It looks at industrial planning or government policy that places more toxins in minority neighborhoods. It also reviews infrastructure decisions that hurt minority and low-income populations. The impacts are felt by displacing people, decreasing air quality, or increasing noise around homes, schools, hospitals, and houses of worship. 

Environmental justice initiatives aim to improve the quality of life for communities by reducing harmful environmental impacts.

Examples are unfortunately common in the US:

  • A study by the Commission for Radical Justice compared toxic waste facility locations in the US with the community’s demographics. The study found that race was the top variable in predicting locations. Race was greater than poverty, land values, or home ownership.
  • The U.S. General Accountability Office reviewed the location of hazardous waste landfills within 8 southern states. It found that 75 percent of those landfills were in mostly Black communities, even though they represent just 20 percent of the population.
  • In July 2022, the City of Houston and Harris County, Texas, announced plans to sue Union Pacific Railroad for creosote impacts on minorities living near the railroad’s operations plant. They say it’s a decades-long problem.

How has public policy responded to EJ concerns?

Today, EJ is moving to the forefront of federal action and policy. This will come as no surprise to those paying attention to statements from the Biden Administration.

In support of President Biden’s “Day One” executive orders, the EPA issued an order for all regions and staff to integrate EJ into their plans and actions. The Office of Management and Budget also requested funding to help advance these priorities.

The President charged the administration to advance EJ in support of:

  • Improving public health.
  • Protecting the environment.
  • Ensuring access to clean air and water.
  • Limiting exposures to dangerous chemicals and pesticides.
  • Holding polluters accountable. This includes those who unequally harm low-income and communities of color.
  • Prioritizing both EJ and the creation of well-paying union jobs to deliver on these goals.
Managing risk is no longer an acceptable model to justify development. The intent is to avoid creating the risk in the first place.

Biden’s second executive order aims to update the regulatory review process. Some areas of focus include promoting public health and safety, social welfare, racial justice, environmental stewardship, and equity. The order aims to protect vulnerable communities.

As a follow-up, the administration is looking to review the government’s approach to addressing EJ. Focus areas include:

  • Climate change mitigation, resilience, and disaster management.
  • Reduction of toxins, pesticides, and pollution in overburdened communities.
  • Equitable conservation and public lands use.
  • Tribal and Indigenous issues.
  • The transition to clean energy.
  • Sustainable infrastructure. This includes clean water, transportation, and the built environment.
  • Increasing Federal efforts to address current and past environmental injustice.

This new emphasis is likely to affect enforcement and regulation under many statutes. Examples include the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and others.

We can also expect to see changes to the public notice and comment process in many areas. These include new regulations, federal projects, power plants, and energy-siting decisions.

EJ advocates will say that managing risk is no longer an acceptable model to justify development. The intent is to avoid creating the risk in the first place.

Proactive and detailed evaluation will become central to real estate decisions at sites that can cause harmful impacts. Parts of the decision-making process will need outreach to get input from residents that might be impacted. The give and take of such outreach will lead to mitigation and other means to eliminate risk.

Public involvement is playing an increasingly important role in shaping policies that affect our environment.

What can stakeholders expect from recent policy?

  • Increased involvement: The EPA and other agencies will increase outreach to those affected. The hope is to foster deeper engagement. This means citizen groups will have a bigger voice in federal environmental policy, regulation, and enforcement. This likely includes citizen suits and NEPA litigation.

  • Impacts on the due-diligence process: Companies and cities should expect more scrutiny of new and existing facilities. Expect closer attention to EJ in permitting, regulation, and enforcement.

    There will likely be a stronger voice from citizen groups and the EJ community. Companies should closely monitor the rule-making process. They should be prepared to engage with the administration as it proposes new rules and laws to carry out EJ policies.

  • EJ in land use decisions and investments: EJ legislation is working its way through the House and Senate. This bill creates several EJ requirements, advisory bodies, and programs. The goal is to address the harmful human health or environmental effects of federal laws or programs on various communities—specifically those of color, low-income, or tribal and Indigenous ones.

    The bill prohibits unequal impacts based on race, color, or national origin as discrimination. Impacted persons may seek legal remedy.

    The bill also directs agencies to follow certain EJ requirements. For example, they must prepare reports that measure the potential impacts on EJ communities. Finally, it creates funding programs, such as a grant program to enhance access to parks and recreational opportunities in urban areas.

How to react to expected impacts

The potential effects of land-use change on EJ communities is huge. Those engaged in land development, permitting of infrastructure, or conservation of land and water should be prepared to evaluate what the changes mean.

Efforts to engage these groups are vital. It will help us develop decisions supporting—rather than disadvantaging—EJ communities.

  • Robert Esenwein

    Robert is an environmental and facilities planner with experience in USACE water resources planning. He’s managed more than 2,000 environmental planning, permitting, and feasibility projects and is also experienced in coastal restoration.

    Contact Robert
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