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What You Need to Know About DEP's New Environmental Justice Policy & How to Weigh In

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

Editor's Note: Good news! The DEP has extended the public comment period. This blog has been updated to reflect that new deadline of Nov. 30.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recently debuted a new Environmental Justice Public Participation Policy intended “to facilitate environmental justice in communities across the Commonwealth and ensure equity and environmental justice.”

For anyone not in the know, the term Environmental Justice describes the notion that Pennsylvania’s environmental regulation efforts should focus on reducing pollution in areas where poor and/or non-white people live because those communities are - or have been - subject to more pollution compared to wealthier and/or whiter communities.

Little Bit of Background on PA’s New Environmental Justice Public Participation Policy

First things first: The new policy unveiled on Sept. 16 does not alter any of DEP’s existing duties or modify any existing environmental laws or regulations. What the new policy does do is outline how DEP intends to:

  1. reach out proactively to environmental justice communities to encourage their participation in its permitting decisions for facilities that are likely to affect them

  2. prioritize the concept of environmental justice in its compliance and enforcement activities

  3. use grantmaking, brownfield redevelopment, and pollution mitigation projects to promote environmental justice.

The new Environmental Justice Public Participation Policy replaces one that had been in effect since 2004 that defined environmental justice areas as municipalities, where at least 30% of the population was non-white or at least 20% of the population had a family income at or below the federal poverty line.

“The old policy encouraged but did not require, applicants for certain environmental permits for facilities in or within one-half mile of an environmental justice area to take steps to promote community participation in permitting processes,” GASP senior attorney John Baillie explained.

He continued:

“To our knowledge, it is not clear how successful such efforts were - or even how success would have been measured - whether they affected permitting decisions in a positive way, or whether they contributed to reductions of pollution in environmental justice areas.”

How Environmental Justice Areas are Determined in PA

The new Environmental Justice Public Participation Policy uses an online mapping tool called PennEnviroScreen to assign a score to each census block in the Commonwealth. The scores are derived from points assigned based on myriad factors such as:

  • Environmental Exposures, including exposure to ozone, fine particulate matter, diesel particulate matter, toxic air emissions, toxic water emissions, pesticides, vehicle emissions, compressor station emissions, and lead;

  • Environmental Effects, including proximity to conventional and unconventional oil and gas wells, railroads, brownfields, and superfund sites, hazardous waste and storage sites, municipal waste sites, coal mines, and associated facilities, impaired lakes and streams, abandoned mines, and areas prone to flooding;

  • Sensitive Populations, including the prevalence of people with asthma, cancer, disabilities, or heart disease, and people without health insurance; and

  • Socioeconomic Factors, including the prevalence of people who are poor, unemployed, non-white, not English speakers, older than 64, or younger than 5, as well as people who did not graduate high school or attend school through ninth grade, and people who are both poor and housing-burdened (meaning, that they pay more than 50% of their monthly incomes for housing).

The score assigned to a census block for any particular factor is not relative to an objective standard (like attainment of one of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards or NAAQS) but is relative to the condition that exists regarding that factor in all other census blocks.

This means, for example, that census blocks with high ozone levels relative to other census blocks will receive high scores for ozone exposure even if they (and all other census blocks in the Commonwealth) attain the NAAQs for ozone. A census block with a score of more than 80 is designated as an environmental justice area.

Some Need-to-Know Info About PA’s New Environmental Justice Policy

There are a few things we think are worth noting about the new Environmental Justice Public Participation Policy:

First, the environmental justice policy is premised on the idea that some communities do not receive the full benefit of environmental laws and regulations. DEP might serve such communities best by identifying which of its own regulations, policies, and practices contribute to the denial of environmental justice and fixing them.

Second, because the scores assigned to census blocks by PennEnviroScreen are relative to the conditions that exist in other census blocks rather than to any objective standard, there will always be some high-scoring census blocks which means there will always be some environmental justice areas. This will be the case even if exposures to environmental threats in all areas of the Commonwealth are at levels thought to be safe.

Third, the new policy deemphasizes the race and poverty of community members as factors in determining Environmental Justice areas. Going forward, DEP will use several additional factors that should cause it to move the focus of its outreach efforts to areas in which environmental threats are greatest.

However, DEP would do well to determine how its permitting process can be made more transparent and open to public participation in general (perhaps by making more, if not all, draft permits available online, and identifying what information it seeks from the public in its permitting decisions) to encourage such participation from all communities in the Commonwealth and reap the benefits it provides.

Fourth, the new policy only applies where DEP has regulatory authority, meaning in part, the policy will not apply to sources of air pollution in Allegheny and Philadelphia Counties, where many of Pennsylvania’s Environmental Justice communities are clustered. For those curious, Allegheny County identifies environmental justice areas using this index but has not adopted a formal policy like DEP’s.

How to Weigh In

The new Environmental Justice Public Participation Policy and related documents are available by following this link. Although the policy has been in effect since Sept. 16, DEP is accepting comments on it through Nov. 30.

Editor’s Note: Stay tuned - GASP will have sample public comment language and an online form for you to easily speak out in this week’s Alert.

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