by Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community-Based Research & Engagement, Fractracker Alliance
and Veronica Coptis, Executive Director
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will be hosting a nine-stop “listening tour” to hear residents’ perspectives on environmental justice (EJ). These sessions begin in the western part of the state on April 12th and 13th. The dates and locations of these meetings can be found here. The DEP will also be accepting written comments, which can be either mailed or emailed to DEP-OEJ@pa.gov.
The EJ listening tour follows on the heels of events in May 2016, when environmental advocacy groups questioned the well pad siting practices oil and gas drilling company Range Resources, causing the DEP to announce it would revisit its EJ policies. Such changes would include reassessing how EJ zones are designated and what kinds of development triggers additional scrutiny by the DEP’s Office of Environmental Justice. We wrote about this story, and detailed how present EJ rules fail to account for oil and gas development in June 2016.
The following guide is meant to provide helpful information to residents in preparing for the listening tour. We first offer a summary of PA’s present EJ policies, followed by a commentary on what gaps we believe exist in those policies, and conclude with some reflections on EJ policies in other U.S. states and what we might learn from them in reassessing our own state’s EJ laws.
Listening Sessions Format
Each environmental justice listening tour will include opening remarks from Acting Secretary McDonnell, followed by a brief presentation from the Office of Environmental Justice, and then will open to receive testimony from the public. Verbal testimony is limited to 3 minutes for each witness. Organizations are asked to designate one witness to present testimony on their behalf. Verbal comments will be recorded by a court stenographer, and transcripts will be made available to the public at a later date.
The DEP Office of Environmental Justice has offered a set of eight questions to guide comments in the listening tour sessions. They are as follows:
1. What environmental justice concerns are most pressing in your community?
2. Do you feel that the current definition of an environmental justice community (20% poverty and/or 30% minority) properly represents the needs of your community and the Commonwealth at large?
3. Do you feel the DEP is engaged with marginalized communities to ensure that they have a voice in the decision making process? How can the DEP be more engaged with these communities?
4. What tools have you used to find out information on DEP permitting/enforcement actions?
5. What ways can the DEP be more effective at sharing information with the public?
6. How can the DEP be more effective at receiving public input?
7. What resource(s) is your community lacking that the DEP can provide that would assist in efforts to ensure environmental equity?
8. What additional steps can be taken by the Department to effectively reach out to these vulnerable communities to ensure that their concerns are taken into consideration?
Summary of Existing EJ Policies
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice is “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.” This same definition is used by the DEP.
In 2004, the DEP codified this EJ definition in the Environmental Justice Public Participation Policy. EJ designations are defined by the DEP as any census tract where 20% or more of the population lives in poverty and/or 30% or more of the population identifies as a minority. Designations are based on the U.S. Census Bureau and by the federal poverty guidelines.
Below is a map of current EJ designated census tracts in PA that also shows the counties where listening tour sessions will be held. When zoomed in to regional scale, EJ areas can be clicked to see their current poverty and minority percentages. The locations of oil and gas wells and permits are also visible at the regional scale.
Map of current EJ areas (based on 2015 census data)
Of note in the 2004 policy are the kinds of permits that trigger a potential EJ review – specifically: industrial wastewater facilities, air permits for new major source of hazardous air pollution, waste permits for landfills and incinerators, coal mining permits and coal refuse facilities, and/or concentrated animal feeding operations. The policy also allows for review of “opt-in permits” the DEP believes warrant special consideration, but we have found no evidence to suggest that this option has been historically used.
When a project triggers EJ review, the DEP “strongly encourages” the applicant meets with community stakeholders prior to submitting their permit, with the idea that additional public outreach makes project details more apparent. The applicant is also encouraged to produce “plain language” information sheets, online and in print form, regarding the proposed activity.
Issues with Existing PA EJ Policies
A complete list of what may occur when a project triggers EJ review can be found here.
Reflections on other states’ EJ policies
States that use poverty and race indicators differently:
- Connecticut: Uses income below 200% of the federal poverty level (“working poor”).
- Illinois: indicates low-income and/or minority population as being “greater than twice the statewide average.”
- Massachusetts: Defines by census “block group” rather than census tract, which can identify pocket EJ areas that might be lost in larger census tracts.
- Texas: For income indicator, uses census block group and income below 200% of the federal poverty level.
States that go beyond poverty and race indicators:
- California: Considers existing disproportionate environmental burden. Also, demographics include “low levels of homeownership, high rent burden…or low levels of educational attainment.”
- Connecticut: includes a “distressed community” indicator, defined as whether it is eligible for HUD grants, or experienced layoffs/tax loss due to a major plant closing.
- Georgia: includes language for elderly and disabled populations “The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) encourages the involvement of people with disabilities in the development and improvement of transportation and paratransit plans and services.”
- Massachusetts: Uses linguistic isolation, defined as “25% or more of households having no one over the age of 14 who speaks English only, or very well.”
- New Jersey: Communities can file a petition to be recognized as a vulnerable.
Example of better public participation affordances:
- New Jersey: When a community is designated EJ, a task force is formed to develop a unique “Action Plan” after consultation with residents, local, and county government, that will address environmental, social and economic factors affecting their health or environment. This task force monitors Action Plan implementation, and advises development projects to reduce impacts.
Environmental justice rules came into existence in order to deal with the burdens of large polluting facilities like landfills, incinerators, and coal mines. Race and poverty measures are, without question, two very important indicators that have provided for the fair treatment of people of all races, income, and cultures in these instances. However, if we are to properly assess how residents are disproportionately impacted, other indicators of marginalization should be included. The Center for Coalfield Justice suggests a few in a report titled Community Indicators of Environmental Justice: A Baseline Report Focusing on Greene and Washington Counties, Pennsylvania.
Fair treatment in EJ communities should offer mechanisms for meaningful input that allow residents to shape the ultimate direction of proposed projects, as well. Finally, current EJ policies are very limited in only addressing future projects, whereas issues such as how disadvantaged communities, struggling with legacy problems such water, air, and soil pollution, are left to other agencies to deal with.
We encourage residents of Pennsylvania to attend an environmental justice listening tour session to share your perspectives, and how the DEP can better fulfill its mandates to protect vulnerable communities.