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Environmental Justice and Air Quality Permitting in the Carolinas

Posted: November 18th, 2020

Authors: Steven M. 

What is Environmental Justice or “EJ”?

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA), EJ is defined “as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”  From a broad practical standpoint, EJ policy can take the form of public notification requirements that are above and beyond typical obligations for proposed permitting projects that impact identified EJ areas.

How is EJ implemented in North Carolina?

The Title VI and Environmental Justice Program manages EJ policies and activities within the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).  The EJ and Equity Advisory Board identifies priority issues, considers public input, and advises DEQ on implementation and direction of new initiatives.  Details are on the following website: https://deq.nc.gov/outreach-education/environmental-justice

How is EJ implemented in South Carolina?

The Office of Environmental Affairs manages EJ policies and activities within the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). Details are on the following website: https://scdhec.gov/index.php/environmental-justice-ej
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How are EJ Communities identified?

There are several mechanisms to identify potential EJ areas of concern. U.S. EPA has developed the Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool EJSCREEN to assess potential EJ areas nationwide. The EJSCREEN Tool displays demographic and environmental information for any geographic area to help identify possible EJ areas of concern by comparing the community of interest to state and national data using percentiles.  For example, if the community is 48% minority and is at the 69th national percentile, this means that 48% of the community’s population is minority, and that is an equal or higher percent minority than where 69% of the US population lives.

In North Carolina, EJ communities can be identified using EJSCREEN or the North Carolina Community Mapping System (NCCMS).  The NCCMS includes additional environmental and health information specific to North Carolina and is used by DEQ to facilitate community outreach and public participation. DEQ uses EJSCREEN to flag community demographic areas 10% or more difference in comparison to the county or state average, 50% or more minority, and 5% or more difference in comparison to the county average for poverty. For example, if 35% of the population in an area is low income but the county population consists of 30% low-income households, the community would exceed the county average by 16.5% and thus be flagged as a potential area of concern.

In South Carolina, EJ Communities generally self-identify and some form non-profit organizations for the primary purpose of obtaining grants for funding of community initiatives. DHEC uses EJSCREEN to identify communities exceeding the 80th percentile.

What is the role of EJ in the air permitting process?

In North Carolina, the current policy is that EJ reviews are conducted for new Title V facilities, Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) permits, and at the discretion of the Division Director. The outcome of each EJ review is published as an EJ Snapshot, EJ Impact Statement, or part of an Environmental Impact Statement.  The majority of the published EJ reviews examined community impacts within 5 miles of the facility.  DEQ communicates information to the impacted EJ community through local organizations and institutions and uses postcards, flyers, social media, and information packets.  The level of public involvement for a specific project or proposal depends on factors specific to that project and the community involved, and can include organizing information sessions and attending community events.

In South Carolina, Environmental Affairs becomes involved in the air permitting process if an EJ Community raises a concern, or when comments are received during a public comment period from national EJ groups. Environmental Affairs reviews any EJ related comments, utilizes EJSCREEN and other resources, and provides responses which become part of the permanent record. Although there is no ”bright-line,” in most cases EJ Communities located within 5 miles of a permitted facility would be of potential interest or concern.

What does this mean for my next project?

Your next project could be your first project receiving interest or attention from a nearby EJ community.  Review the EJSCREEN tool to learn who is around you and consider community outreach before your next big project. Discuss the project early on with the state regulatory agency to understand what their expectations around EJ policy, if any, would be for the project.  Although EJ is currently policy and not rulemaking, if the EJ community raises concerns it may impact your permitting timeline. We also note that the incoming Biden administration has indicated their intention to establish an Environmental Justice and Climate Division, so look for more activity around EJ at the federal level in 2021 and beyond.  With the increased focus on EJ that we expect, it will also be important to identify members of your environmental team that are well suited to effectively present project and environmental information to public stakeholders.

Contact Steve Moore at 919-234-5981 for more information.
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