Environmental justice is not a new concept, but it is one that promises to receive renewed and vigorous attention in the Biden Administration. On his first day in office, Mr. Biden issued an Executive Order requiring the federal government to advance and prioritize environmental justice. Mr. Biden has selected a committed advocate as the head of EPA who has promised a pronounced emphasis on environmental justice concerns.
As a result, it is a good time to understand the legal underpinnings of environmental justice claims, the current EPA approach to investigating complaints regarding environmental justice, and steps that may be taken during site selection to minimize or eliminate serious claims regarding environmental justice.
The article contains five parts:
Part I: The Statute
Part II: The Executive Order and EPA’s Regulations
Part III: EPA Guidance – The 2000 Draft Revised Investigative Guidance
Part IV: EPA Guidance – The Toolkit
Part V: Considerations in Site Selection
Part V: Considerations in Site Selection
An applicant for an environmental permit faces any number of hurdles in gaining approval to construct and operate a facility or even expand an existing facility. Environmental justice concerns add a layer of complexity and uncertainty to capital investment decisions. It is almost certain that environmental justice claims will be made during the permitting process for major facilities. While each situation is different and the level of effort should be based on the facts and needs in each case, consideration can be given to taking certain steps before and during that process to reduce the likelihood of success of any such claims.
It is important to note that there is little to no fact-checking during the public comment process, meaning that opponents to a facility can make any number of unsupported claims. Many environmental justice advocates seem to believe that any facility located near or in the vicinity of a disadvantaged community is, on its own and regardless of the facts, a basis to make a claim regarding environmental justice. In other words, the mere location of the facility creates an environmental injustice. Additionally, claims of environmental injustice can be made tactically to galvanize opposition to the facility, again without regard to facts or based on the flimsiest of evidentiary bases. Notwithstanding the rhetoric, there are legal standards and factual thresholds, based on Title VI and the case law interpreting it and EPA’s own regulations and policies, that must be met to prove an environmental justice claim.
It is also important to remember that administrative or judicial review of environmental permits is usually confined to an administrative record. It is critically important that information developed to counter environmental justice claims be placed into the administrative record during the application and public comment process. Without supporting information in the record, the agency and permittee will not be able to rely on and reference the information in a decision document, the permit decision will lack valuable supporting evidence, and a reviewing tribunal or court will lack a basis to uphold the permit decision.
The obvious, but perhaps unrealistic, step to limit or eliminate environmental justice claims is to locate a facility in an area where no one lives in proximity to the proposed facility. These may be located in rural areas or within much larger tracts used or set aside for industrial purposes (sometimes called ‘mega-sites’). If such tracts are available, they should be given serious consideration. However, rural tracts may not meet the needs of the proposed facility, such as access to transportation infrastructure for raw materials or products, and even the larger tracts set aside for industrial purposes may have residents in some degree of proximity.
As a result, it is more likely than not that available industrial sites will be located in areas where some population resides in some degree of proximity. Determining if those sites are suitable for selection, from an environmental, economic, and environmental justice perspective, requires a searching inquiry that should begin prior to making any purchase commitments.
Site selection can be based on a number of considerations. Economic considerations, such as price, property size, local zoning or land use ordinances, proximity and access to transportation (pipelines, rail, truck, barge, or ship), and access to electrical infrastructure, are standard. Many companies make decisions based solely on these considerations.
However, environmental considerations are also important. For example, in Louisiana, an applicant and the environmental agency must give due consideration to environmental aspects of the project and an applicant cannot simply rely on business or economic considerations. See e.g., In re: Supplemental Fuels, Inc., 94-1596 (La. App. 1 Cir. 5/9/95), 656 So.2d 29, 39. Environmental considerations could include the attainment status of the area, the amount of wetlands on or adjacent to the property, the property’s location in a floodplain, the water quality standards for the waters receiving permitted discharges from the facility, the level of emissions, and the proximity of residents to the proposed facility.
Environmental justice has added a new level of complexity and considerations to site selection, especially as to the effect the environmental aspects of the facility have on any community in proximity of the proposed facility. In general terms, the demographics of the population in proximity to the proposed site can be obtained and the effects of “pollution” (such as generated waste, wastewater discharges, and air emissions) from the facility on that population can be analyzed.
In this regard, due regard should be given to the site selection team and its organization. Team members representing real estate, economics, and environmental professionals should be included, but, should the circumstances warrant it, consideration should be given to including counsel, along with a modeler, statistician, and toxicologist. The modeler, statistician, and toxicologist should be hired by counsel as consulting experts and should report only to counsel. This will assist in preserving the confidentiality of any communications from the modeler, statistician, and toxicologist regarding the effects of “pollution” on the community.
The demographics of the community in proximity, down to zip codes and census blocks, can be obtained from the US Census and other sources. Further, there may be reliable information available regarding actual impacts in a given area. For example, the Louisiana Tumor Registry compiles actual cancer incidences and mortality data for specific cancers at the census block level.
Once available data is gathered, the modeler, toxicologist, and statistician can evaluate potential impacts on a neighboring community. In these efforts, counsel and these team members should be guided by the legal and policy framework set out in the Draft Revised Investigative Guidance and Toolkit or any other guidance issued by the Biden Administration. In other words, their efforts and analysis should be shaped and guided by the “disparate impact” framework set forth in those documents.
The modeler can use air emission models to predict or identify off-site locations, or receptors, where air emissions are predicted to be located. For example, receptors can be located within the model at locations in and around the community to predict the level of emissions at that location or receptor based on the maximum levels of emissions estimated from the proposed facility. The toxicologist can utilize the predicted information from the model to determine the potential impacts on that population and the statistician can determine if that potential level of impact is statistically significant.
During the permit and public comment process, opponents are likely to insert their own information into the record to attempt to support their claims. Information such as the demographics of an area, the results of screening model runs, such as EPA’s Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators (RSEI) model, and data obtained from EPA’s EJ Screen have all been used. However, the RSEI model and EJ Screen have important caveats as to their use. For example, EPA notes that EJ Screen was developed merely to “highlight places that may be candidates for further review.” There is “uncertainty in the data” and that EJ Screen is “a screening tool and “not a detailed risk analysis.” See www.epa.gov/ejscreen/limitations-and-caveats-using-ejscreen. The applicant and its team should address and refute any comments and submissions utilizing this type of basic screening-level information.
The end result of the process should be a report that can be placed into the record for each potential site to support the decision to choose a particular site. If the analysis indicates that a particular site will not have a disparate impact, based on EPA’s own analytical framework, the site can be evaluated based on economic or environmental considerations. If the analysis indicates that a particular site will have or may have a disparate impact, that site can be ruled out, additional analysis performed to further define the extent of any impact, or perhaps there may be facts supporting a claim of substantial legitimate justification. In this way, the decision to choose a specific site has a viable and supported administrative record that should survive administrative or judicial review and should serve to counter or negate opposition and/or unsupported rhetoric in the record.