4 The record articles

EPA’s Power Plants and Neighboring Communities Tool – It’s Not Just for Power Plants

Posted: August 12th, 2021

Authors: Rich H. 

On July 29th, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) held a webinar to introduce their Power Plants and Neighboring Communities web resource. The tool is built off the demographic and environmental information available in U.S. EPA’s EJSCREEN Environmental Justice (EJ) Screening and Mapping tool but focuses on power plants (including sites with combined heat and power [CHP] systems) and nearby communities across the United States.  The webpage includes a comprehensive grouping of interactive maps, graphs, and supporting materials. The tool combines the information from EJSCREEN with emissions data from the Clean Air Markets database, health risk data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC)’s National Environmental Public Health Tracking Network, and U.S. EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) data. U.S. EPA states that the tool “advances the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to environmental justice by empowering the public and policymakers with information and tools to better understand the disproportionate impacts of air pollution in overburdened communities.”

What Facilities Are Included? How Are They Evaluated?

The tool identifies 3,477 sites that U.S. EPA has termed “power plants” across the country. The definition of power plant for the purposes of the tool is any site with a coal, oil, natural gas, or biomass-fired combustion unit that could provide 1 megawatt (MW) to the grid. Because of this definition, many of the facilities included in the tool are not what one would generally think of as a power plant at all, as it includes CHP units at hospitals, universities, pulp and paper mills, and other industrial facilities. There are even some data centers on the list! In short, if you can provide 1 MW of power to the grid, you are on the list.

Every facility on the list is evaluated based on the demographics of the communities within a 3 mile radius of the facility and is assigned a Demographic Index that is based exclusively on the local demographics of the surrounding area, not on the magnitude or nature of environmental releases from the particular facility. Those facilities that score in the 80th percentile or greater are highlighted as ones that impose excess environmental burden on those neighborhoods, simply due to their location. Facilities that score over 80% are highlighted in yellow or red on the national map. The items that make up the Demographic Index are:

  1. Low-income population
  2. People of color
  3. Population with less than high school education
  4. Linguistically isolated population
  5. Population under age 5
  6. Population over age 64

What Kind of Data are Available?

The tool allows many different options for the user to drill down and find the plants that are characterized as having the greatest impact on overburdened communities. The user can search by state, emissions by criteria pollutant, nameplate capacity, any of the demographics listed above, and other criteria. Clicking on a specific plant provides detailed information about the plant’s emissions, the demographics of the communities around the plant, and the health risk levels in the county the plant is in. The data can be sliced and diced in many ways and plotted on graphs and charts or used to generate lists of plants that appear to cause a heavy burden on nearby EJ communities.

Should You be Concerned?

Yes – If your facility is listed in the tool and is identified with a Demographic Index over the 80th percentile, this website shows your facility as a red dot on a map and provides your facility’s emissions data, compliance history, capacity, and utilization, along with health risk data for the county where the facility is located. Even if you are not in the business of generating power and none of the sites you own are in this tool, we can easily envision future versions of the tool focused on the chemical industry, oil and gas, and other types of manufacturing.  The tool is focusing attention on sites that burn fuel for power, even if they are in full compliance with environmental regulations.

What’s next, and what can you do?

The Power Plant and Neighboring Communities Tool has demographic, environmental, and health risk data in one central location, supplemented by graphs, lists, and figures that implicate those plants that may be in compliance with all of their environmental requirements but could have an environmental impact on the communities near them. U.S. EPA has said that they will be providing tutorial videos and additional graphics tools to make using and summarizing the data even easier. It is also expected that additional versions of the tool focused on other sectors are not far off. Companies with power generating facilities should review the tool to understand their Demographic Index and:

  • Keep tabs on EJ regulatory and policy developments on the state and federal level. Know how your state or local agency is considering EJ in permitting. Be prepared to comment on proposed policies and rules when the opportunity arises.
  • Talk to your local regulatory agency about any upticks in comments on permit renewals or construction permit applications. Are there common themes in those comments?  As an applicant, can information be presented such that public comments are anticipated and addressed ahead of time?
  • Know your facility’s EJ footprint: Are your plants close to communities that are categorized by the Administration as overburdened? Do they trip the 80% Demographic Index threshold? What is your company’s relationship with adjacent communities?
  • Plan to factor in time for enhanced outreach and potential permitting delays during expansion projects at facilities near EJ communities.
  • Public awareness and engagement are at an all-time high. Stay ahead of the curve by improving your confidence in your emissions inventory and engaging with your community.
  • Keep accurate records of emissions for “hot topic” pollutants such as PM5, toxics, and PFAS.

ALL4 has been watching the developing rules and regulations around EJ carefully and has contacted all 50 state agencies to better understand the EJ programs in place and under development. We also have experience with both the EJSCREEN tool and the new Power Plant and Neighboring Community tools and can help you identify which of your plants might be subject to EJ policy requirements and develop a strategy to engage and educate the local community.

If you have concerns about the potential implications of EJ Tools, Policies, or Regulations and you’d like to discuss them, feel free to contact your ALL4 Project Manager or Rich Hamel. We’d be happy to share what we’ve learned so far and assist you in any way we can. We can also help you evaluate the potential for future EJ concerns or requirements for each of your facilities and develop a strategy to proactively address those concerns or requirements by performing local monitoring, air dispersion modeling, and public outreach. We’re here to help!

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