A strong emphasis on outreach by regulated facilities to enhance involvement by minority and disadvantaged communities is the cornerstone of an EPA notice that describes the Agency’s current thinking on integrating environmental justice (EJ) into the federal permitting process.
The primary purpose of the notice is to direct EPA’s 10 regional offices to develop plans to implement meaningful engagement with overburdened communities in their permitting activities. The notice indicates that all the regional offices should work around a single general framework in areas such as prioritizing permits that are expected to most concern EJ communities, communicating with the community, and coordinating activities with the permit applicant.
Many states have their own EJ programs, and the EPA says it intends to share its experiences and ideas with these governments and other federal agencies with the goal of promoting similar efforts.
The notice also recognizes that a permit applicant that engages early on with an affected community holds the potential for “achieving more environmental good than any permit can compel.”
The EPA acknowledges that nationwide it issues very few environmental permits in contrast to state and local agencies. The Agency also claims that limited resources affect the extent to which it can take action to understand and respond to community concerns (e.g., gathering information from communities, distributing plain language explanations, and holding meetings).
Therefore, the notice emphasizes the importance of using screening tools to prioritize permits that will potentially have the greatest impact on the community. Five types of permits are viewed as potentially significant– construction permits under the Clean Air Act, especially for new or modified major sources of criteria air pollutants; significant underground injection control program permits under the Safe Drinking Water Act; major industrial national pollutant discharge elimination system (NPDES) permits for new sources or new discharges or existing sources with new outfalls or new processes that result in discharges of new pollutants or increased discharges of pollutants; nonmajor NPDES permits where increased or new discharges of pollutants will occur; and RCRA permits associated with new combustion facilities or corrective action cleanups involving potential off-site impacts.
Strong role for applicants
While not diminishing the importance of the federal role, the notice points out that the permit applicant is in the better position to take early action by notifying the EJ community about upcoming projects and understanding its concerns. In a “best practices” appendix, the EPA advises permit applicants on ways to engage communities at the facility fence-line as well as those who may experience effects beyond the fence-line. The exchange of information is critical as a project begins to develop, notes the EPA, and the permit applicant has access to information that can create a constructive dialog throughout the permitting process.
The best practices document notes that one good way to begin community outreach is to identify and coordinate actions both elected and nonelected community leaders who understand the needs and aspirations of all stakeholders–both the permit applicant and the community as well as the regulatory bodies and local government. Applicants should keep an open mind about where to find these leaders and extend their inquiries to faith institutions, health organizations, grassroots entities, and other permittees.
Elements of effective engagement are also described and include distributing plain-language and multi-language summaries of the project, the potential impacts, and how potentially adverse impacts will be mitigated. Applicants are also advised to conduct facility tours for community leaders and representatives to explain the work performed and the changes that will occur. The public should also be provided with regular progress reports. Other best practices address the need for communication that works, the possible need for a professional neutral facilitator to help resolve disputes, and the importance of delivering on commitments made in early stages of discussion.
Understand the culture
Applicants should also keep their permitting authorities informed of any initiatives they independently undertake to work with communities before and during the permitting process. EJ is a high priority of the current EPA, and efforts to simultaneously advance a project and ensure the human and environmental well-being of the surrounding community may prove advantageous in future regulatory interactions. Also, while the notice and the best practices provide practical advice, permit applicants should be aware that EJ communities are diverse in the extreme, and communication and cooperation that advance or at least do not impair a project should be based on the character, culture, needs, and aspirations of the individual community or communities and should not be exclusively based on any predetermined formula.
EPA’s notice on activities to promote EJ during the permitting process was published in the June 26, 2012, FR.