Environmental Justice Policy comment period open through November
After nearly 20 years, thousands of public comments, and an Executive Order from former Governor Tom Wolf, Pennsylvania is updating its Environmental Justice (EJ) Policy and the systems to support its implementation. This is an encouraging development at a crucial time. Federal funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Inflation Reduction Act is flowing to states while the White House’s Justice40 Initiative is integrating EJ policies across federal agencies. The Commonwealth’s EJ Policy, however, is currently confined to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) and its permitting processes, revealing the opportunity for a “whole-of-government” approach to EJ policy in Pennsylvania.
Originally adopted in 2004, Pennsylvania’s EJ Policy began to take shape following a series of national and local events. On the national stage, the 1st National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit was held in 1991 where communities overburdened by pollution coalesced around Principles of Environmental Justice and Principles of Working Together. In Pennsylvania during the mid-1990s, Chester, PA advocates brought forward one of the first EJ lawsuits in the U.S. because 60% of Delaware County’s waste facilities were located in a 70% Black community.
Building on the EJ movement’s momentum, former Governor Tom Ridge signed Executive Order 1997-4, authorizing a 21st Century Environment Commission to compose strategies that would correct environmental injustices and prevent them from happening. The Commission’s 1998 report recommended the formation of a stakeholder group to make recommendations to the Governor on environmental justice. In 2001, an EJ Working Group developed policy recommendations that suggested integrating EJ into the PA DEP’s permitting processes as well as the monitoring and enforcement of PA DEP permitted facilities in EJ communities. It also recommended the establishment of an Environmental Justice Advisory Board, on which Sustainable Pittsburgh’s Executive Director currently serves as a member.
CHANGE AT SCALE:
Addressing environmental injustice requires continuous improvement, and Pennsylvania’s updated EJ Policy, EJ Mapping and Screening Tool (PennEnviroScreen), and Office of Environmental Justice offers EJ communities much needed capacity to correct systemic injustices. But to truly address Pennsylvania’s roads that divide communities, buildings with poor access, health issues exacerbated by carbon-intensive activities, and inequitably conceived and implemented plans, ideally, EJ would be integrated broadly across state agencies. Pennsylvania’s current EJ Policy focuses on community engagement before, during and after a project that requires PA DEP oversight in an EJ community. But EJ also means centering equity in workforce development and supporting disadvantaged communities on their path to decarbonization. Environmental justice produces meaningful health, welfare, and community benefits, and every state agency in Pennsylvania has much to gain from more equitable decision-making processes that empower communities to create a better Pennsylvania for all.
PA DEP is continuing to take steps in the right direction. In 2023, Pennsylvania’s Energy Programs Office implemented a Climate Action Environmental Justice Communities Program which engaged Pennsylvania’s EJ communities, both in-person and online via the Climate Strategy Opinion Survey. The survey focuses on helping Pennsylvania’s EJ communities adapt to climate change, reduce emissions and capitalize on opportunities to strengthen the local economy. The results of this outreach are reported in Pennsylvania Climate Action: Strategies for Environmental Justice Communities, which highlights the need for equity benchmarks and more accessible climate change language as well as administrative support for financial assistance programs in under-resourced communities.
The Energy Programs Office plans to enact the EJ community’s feedback by actionizing equity in federal funding programs and ensuring equitable implementation of climate programs with funding from IIJA and IRA in alignment with Justice40. This will result in a stronger EJ focus in the Commonwealth’s upcoming 2024 Climate Action Plan and increased access to implementation funds for Pennsylvania’s EJ communities from the federal Climate Pollution Reduction Grant Program.
CALL TO ACTION:
EJ in Pennsylvania is moving in the right direction, but there’s much to be done to ensure it continues. Consider commenting on Pennsylvania’s revised Environmental Justice Policy in support of EJ communities to be sure voices are heard on what still needs to be achieved. Verbal comments will be collected during upcoming public meetings being held throughout the state. Written comments can be sent through the PA DEP’s eComment tool, emailed to “email@example.com” or sent via postal mail to: “Technical Guidance Coordinator, Department of Environmental Protection, Policy Office, Rachel Carson State Office Building, P.O. Box 2063, Harrisburg, PA 17105-2063. Written comments are due by November 30, 2023. There is no set format for comments, and all comments carry equal weight. View Sustainable Pittsburgh’s comments on the draft EJ Policy from Spring 2023 here.