4 The record articles

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Releases Equity Action Plan to Support Environmental Justice Goals

Posted: May 4th, 2022

Authors: Rich H. 

On April 14, 2022, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) released its Equity Action Plan (EAP), meeting the directive from Executive Order 13985: Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government calling for each government agency to outline its plan for achieving the goals for the executive order. The EAP outlines 6 priority actions that are aligned with U.S. EPA’s 2022-2026 Strategic Plan, specifically with Strategic Goal #2 “Take Decisive Action to Advance Environmental Justice and Civil Rights” and the following objectives under that goal:

  • Objective 2.1: Promote Environmental Justice and Civil Rights at the Federal, Tribal, State, and Local Levels
  • Objective 2.2: Embed Environmental Justice and Civil Rights into EPA’s Programs, Policies, and Activities
  • Objective 2.3: Strengthen Civil Rights Enforcement in Communities with Environmental Justice Concerns

Under each priority action, the EAP identifies:

  • Barriers to equitable outcomes;
  • Planned actions to overcome those barriers;
  • How progress will be tracked; and
  • How accountability will be ensured.

Here are the six priority actions identified in the EAP and some of the aspects and implications of each:

  1. Develop a comprehensive framework for considering cumulative impacts in relevant EPA decisions and operationalize that framework in EPA’s programs and activities.

This priority covers the Cumulative Impact Assessment (CIA) Guidance that we’ve been hearing is imminent since the Summer of 2021 and commits to that guidance being implemented by September of 2023.  The Guidance is expected to discuss how to assess and consider impacts on a community due to the accumulation of multiple environmental and social stressors. Given that just a month ago, the Science Advisory Board held two public meetings (follow link to access the materials from those) asking for suggestions as to what research they should undertake to support CIA’s, it seems like a tall order to have the guidance fully implemented that quickly. This priority also includes a new Cumulative Impact Index for EJSCREEN, which may become the first concrete scoring mechanism added to that tool.  The implementation of this guidance will be the first set of requirements formally issued by the administration related to environmental justice and will likely result in additional considerations during the permitting process and perhaps additional modeling or monitoring requirements for facilities in or near overburdened communities.

  1. Build the capacity of underserved communities to provide their experience to EPA and implement community-led projects.

This priority is focused on empowering underserved communities through grants and training, making the grant application process easier to navigate, and generally make it easier for those communities to be heard. It also discusses making a cultural change to the focus of the U.S. EPA to emphasize community engagement over the more typical regulatory compliance focus we’re all used to as EHS professionals.

  1. Develop EPA’s internal capacity to engage underserved communities and implement clear and accountable processes to act based on communities’ input.

This priority is primarily about expanding the ability of U.S. EPA to deal with environmental justice issues with more funding and staff, with the goal of building environmental justice aspects into the agency’s decision process on every project. One of the key facets of this item would be to create the Office of Environmental Justice, the administrator of which would be a senate-confirmed position. The creation of this office was part of U.S. EPA’s initial budget request for FY2022 but was removed before the final budget was approved. Another goal of this item is to require U.S. EPA regions and programs to develop their own action plans around Strategic Goal #2 of the 2022-2026 Strategic Plan.

  1. Strengthen EPA’s external civil rights compliance program and ensure that civil rights compliance is an agency-wide responsibility.

This priority furthers actions we’ve already seen U.S. EPA aggressively using existing rules, especially  Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to enforce civil rights compliance requirements. It also asks for more funding for ECRCO (U.S. EPA External Civil Rights Compliance Office) so that it can be fully engaged with external agencies, perform more proactive compliance activities, and promote the advancement of equity. It also emphasizes a culture of collaboration between ECRCO and other offices of U.S. EPA.

  1. Integrate participatory (community) science into EPA’s research and program implementation.

This priority states that U.S. EPA will adopt a policy of weighing community science (localized research projects undertaken by communities or 3rd party organizations representing them) equally with more traditional peer-reviewed research. This includes funding grants to support community science projects, and the creation of new tools to support and provide data to those projects. The implications of this priority could be additional community-led or third party-led monitoring or sampling activities near your facility.

  1. Make EPA’s procurement and contracting more equitable.

This priority covers the reality that underserved communities often lack access to U.S. EPA decision makers when it comes to procurement, and that those decision makers often use known incumbents rather than opening the process to other contractors. Additionally, many minority contractors in underserved communities don’t meet some U.S. EPA requirements for procurement. U.S. EPA intends, under this action, to challenge offices and regions to conduct outreach and support and give more opportunity and priority to businesses in minority communities.

Observations and Implications

It seems from the EAP and other U.S. EPA actions related to environmental justice that U.S. EPA’s focus is shifting to direct community engagement, often in lieu of working with the state agencies where those communities are located. This was emphasized through U.S. EPA Administrator Regan’s Journey to Justice in late 2021 and also appears to be a method for the federal administration to increase pressure on states to further their own environmental justice policies and programs. Another observation is that to do all that is proposed in the EAP will require a lot of money, and while a significant amount of money is allocated to environmental justice in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Plan and the proposed FY2023 budget, it may fall short of what is required to fully implement the EAP. For industry, Priority Action #1, related to cumulative impact assessments and upgrades to the EJSCREEN tool to support the determination of when a CIA might be required, maybe the one to watch most closely. In general, expect more interest from the public and the agency in your operation and your permits if you are in or near an EJ community.

If you have concerns about the potential implications of the Equity Action Plan, or any other EJ Policies and 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 what we’re hearing is just over the horizon and assist you in any way we can. We can also help you evaluate the EJ risk for each of your facilities and plot a strategy to minimize that risk by performing local monitoring, air dispersion modeling, and public outreach. We’re here to help!


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