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 III: EPA Guidance – The 2000 Draft Revised Investigative Guidance
EPA defines environmental justice as 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. The goal of environmental justice will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work. See www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice. To determine whether the goal has been achieved in individual situations, EPA has issued various guidance documents over the years which govern EPA’s investigation of environmental justice complaints.
EPA issued Interim Guidance in February 1998 which provided an internal framework for EPA’s processing of complaints alleging discrimination in environmental permitting. After a series of public meetings and evaluation of public comments on the Interim Guidance, EPA issued the Draft Revised Guidance for Investigating Title VI Administrative Complaints Challenging Permits (the Draft Revised Investigative Guidance). 65 Fed. Reg. 39650 (June 27, 2000). 
The Draft Revised Investigative Guidance was developed to address the application of Title VI to alleged adverse disparate impacts caused by environmental permitting. It does not address other applications of Title VI in the environmental context, such as unequal enforcement or public participation. It also does not address discriminatory intent.
The Draft Revised Investigative Guidance provides detailed information regarding EPA’s process and procedures for investigating Title VI complaints related to permitting, including acceptance and rejection of complaints, investigation procedures, informal resolution, and providing ‘due weight’ to a recipient’s submittals in an investigation. Importantly, though, the Draft Revised Investigative Guidance provides EPA’s adverse disparate impact analytical framework and the recipient’s justification of any adverse disparate impact.
EPA’s framework for an adverse disparate impact analysis consists of six steps:
- Assess Applicability (determine the type of permit action at issue);
- Define Scope of Investigation (determine the source or sources of an alleged impact and which of the sources should be included in an analysis);
- Conduct Impact Assessment (determine if the activities of the permitted entity, either alone or in combination with other relevant sources, are likely to result in an impact);
- Make Adverse Impact Decision (determine whether the estimated risk or measure of impact is significantly adverse);
- Characterize Populations and Conduct Comparisons (determine whether a disparity exists between the affected population and an appropriate comparison population); and
- Make Adverse Disparate Impact Decision (determine whether the disparity is significant).
The evaluation in most of the steps could result in the termination of the investigation. For example, EPA could determine in Step 1 that the permit action decreases emissions, in which case EPA would likely close the investigation. Additionally, EPA could determine in Step 4 that any impact is not adverse and if so, “the allegation will not form the basis of a finding of non-compliance.” 65 Fed. Reg. 39676 (June 27, 2000).
In the Step 3 impact assessment, EPA assesses whether the alleged discriminatory act may cause or is associated with one or more impacts. EPA will review whether the entity emits or releases pollutants or substances (called stressors by EPA) that could be the source of the alleged impacts and whether there is a plausible exposure route. For example, the entity could release fine particulate matter into the air and the alleged impact is respiratory ailments or asthma. In this step, EPA reviews, among other things, any direct links to potential impacts, the risks associated with compounds, and concentration levels.
Assuming there is an impact, EPA will determine in Step 4 whether an estimated risk or measure of impact is significantly adverse. EPA would evaluate the risk or measure of impact compared to benchmarks for significance provided under any relevant environmental statute, EPA regulation, or EPA policy and if the risks or other measure of potential impact meet or exceed a relevant significance level, the impact generally would be recognized as adverse under Title VI.
EPA provided an example of potential outcomes of this Step 4 evaluation using a range of risk values. EPA would expect that cumulative cancer risks of less than 1 in 1 million (10-6) would be very unlikely to support a finding of adverse impact while cumulative cancer risks above 1 in 10,000 (10-4) would likely support a finding of adverse impact. EPA may make an adverse impact finding when the risks fall in between those ranges.
EPA also provided guidance on the role of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) in a finding of adverse impact. NAAQS are set at levels that are protective of human health and the environment with an adequate margin of safety. As such, air quality that adheres to such standards “is presumptively protective of public health in the general population” and “emissions of that pollutant should not be viewed as ‘adverse’ within the meaning of Title VI.” 65 Fed. Reg. 39680 (June 27, 2000). However, this presumption may be overcome, or rebutted, “if the investigation produces evidence that significant adverse impacts may occur.” Id.
This “rebuttable presumption” originated in an EPA decision in 1998 on a Title VI complaint regarding Select Steel Corporation. However, in 2013, EPA stated that it would “eliminate application of the rebuttable presumption when investigating allegations about environmental health-based thresholds.” 78 Fed. Reg. 24740 (April 26, 2013). Although compliance with a health-based threshold “is a serious consideration in an evaluation of whether adverse disparate impact exists” and “strongly suggests that the remaining risks are low and at an acceptable level,” applying the presumption “may not give sufficient consideration to other factors that could also adversely impact human health.” 78 Fed. Reg. 24740-24741 (April 26, 2013). EPA did eliminate application of the rebuttable presumption on January 18, 2017 when it issued its Compliance Toolkit (discussed in Part IV).
EPA would then, in Step 5, determine whether a disparity exists between the affected population and an appropriate comparison population. The affected population is one which suffers the adverse impacts of the stressors from assessed sources. The comparison population would be drawn from those who live within a reference area and may include the general population or the non-affected population for the reference area.
Disparity will be assessed using comparisons both of the different prevalence of race, color, or national origin of the two populations and comparisons of the level of risk of adverse impacts experienced by each population. There is no one formula or analysis to be applied and EPA will “use appropriate comparisons to assess disparate impact depending on the facts and circumstances of the complaint.” 65 Fed. Reg. 39681 (June 27, 2000). EPA could compare the demographic characteristics of most likely affected to the least likely affected or the average risk or measure of
adverse impact by demographic group within the general population or within an affected population.
EPA will then determine in Step 6 whether the disparity is significant. EPA will review the comparisons in Step 5 to determine if the results are consistent across the various comparisons made. Further, EPA announced that disparity “would normally be statistically evaluated to determine whether the differences achieved statistical significance to at least 2 to 3 standard deviations.” 65 Fed. Reg. 39682 (June 27, 2000). EPA will also consider uncertainties, such as the accuracy of predicted risk levels. Regardless, EPA made clear that the significance of a given level of disparity may vary depending upon the facts and circumstances of the complaint.
Based on the above analysis, EPA may make a finding that an impact is both adverse and borne disproportionately by a group of persons. That, however, does not end the inquiry. The recipient may be able to show that the impact is justified. To do so, the recipient must show “that the challenged activity is reasonably necessary to meet a goal that is legitimate, important, and integral to the recipient’s institutional mission.” 65 Fed. Reg. 39683 (June 27, 2000). Such a showing could include such interests as economic development “if the benefits are delivered directly to the affected population and if the broader interest is legitimate, important, and integral to the recipient’s mission.” Id.