Environmental Justice is a Top Priority | Williams Mullen

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When environmental lobbyists are asked to discuss the topics to watch for 2021-2022, the answer almost always includes one broadly encompassing topic: Environmental Justice. While the term “Environmental Justice” or “EJ” is not new, until recently it has appeared to be more of a politically correct buzz word than a movement effecting any real and consistent changes in regulators’ approaches to environmental decision-making. However, President Biden brought new life to the concept by issuing an executive order establishing a White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (“WHEJAC”) immediately upon taking office. Members of Congress followed the President’s lead by proposing a new law to create and fund $18-20 million annually over the next four years to support certain community environmental justice initiatives and research. State environmental regulatory agencies, including the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (“SC DHEC”), have taken heed of the federal movement and are also promising to ramp up their EJ programs in the coming years. Virginia has announced similar efforts.

What is Environmental Justice?

According to EPA’s website, EJ 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.” As a result of the EJ definition, EPA (and other state agencies involved with the environment) are required to do two things when making regulatory permitting or enforcement decisions: treat sensitive communities fairly by not requiring them to bear a disproportionate share of negative consequences, and meaningfully involve members of these communities in those regulatory decisions.

History of Environmental Justice

EPA formed the Office of Environmental Justice (“OEJ”) in 1992 to provide educational, scientific, and financial support to communities experiencing disparate impacts to health and the environment. The concept gained momentum in 1994 when President Bill Clinton signed an executive order directing each federal agency to make Environmental Justice part of its mission “by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations in the United States.” Clinton’s Executive Order created deadlines for an interagency advisory council led by EPA and engaging seventeen other federal agencies to identify environmental justice communities and environmental impacts, and to form strategies to address and prevent disproportionately negative impacts to their health and surrounding environment. Biden is now bringing back this type of approach to these issues.

The 2021 WHEJAC Agenda

The WHEJAC, unlike the interagency advisory group created by Clinton, is a multi-agency group which includes representatives from the offices of the Attorney General, the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, and Transportation and, of course, EPA. It also includes White House officials to help keep the movement on task, including the head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Climate Advisor, and the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Many believe this shift is intended to, and will, ensure more accountability and real progress, to be measured by specific metrics listed in the Biden Executive Order itself.

In fact, during the WHEJAC’s first meeting in March, White House officials stressed a change in the way EJ will be promoted and tracked. In the past, EPA has taken the lead in directing EJ initiatives at the 17 other federal agencies. Some agencies have done little by way of EJ policy changes, and EPA’s attempts to lead and…



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