U.S. EPA Releases Environmental Justice Draft Plan, Updated Screening Tool, and Technical Guidance

The EPA has released EJ documents and an EJ screening tool that are likely to bring greater scrutiny to industrial operations, especially recycling facilities.

Greater scrutiny will likely necessitate greater awareness of the potential impacts of recycling operations to neighboring communities and implementation of more environmental controls to reduce potential off-site impacts.

In recent months, the U.S. EPA released to the public several items related to its efforts on environmental justice, as directed by Presidential Executive Order 12898, as amended. These EJ items individually and collectively have the potential to affect recycling facilities and operations directly or indirectly: a draft of its “EJ 2020 Action Agenda: Environmental Justice Strategic Plan 2016-2020”; an updated version of EJSCREEN—its EJ screening and mapping tool; the final “Technical Guidance for Assessing Environmental Justice in Regulatory Analysis.”

EJ 2020 outlines a number activities to be conducted by different EPA Regions and EPA Offices (e.g., Office of Water, Office of Policy, and Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance) from 2016-2020 to achieve the following three EJ goals with their four priority areas:  
I.            “Deepen [EJ] practice … to improve the health and environment of overburdened communities” via (1) rulemaking, (2) permitting, (3) compliance/enforcement, and (4) science;        

II.            “Work with partners to expand [EPA’s] positive impact within overburdened communities” including (1) state and local governments, (2) federal agencies, (3) community-based work, and (4) tribes and indigenous peoples; and      

III.            “Demonstrate progress on [the] significant national [EJ] challenges” of (1) lead (Pb) disparities, (2) drinking water, (3) air quality, and (4) hazardous waste sites.  

EPA anticipates the following outcomes from implementing EJ2020: improved conditions for overburdened communities; significant integration of EJ into EPA decision-making; strong EJ partnerships with state and local regulators; enhanced ability to take action on EJ; and addressing complex national EJ issues better.  

Potential effects from Goal I arise from activities in all 4 priority areas, which will be conducted in certain EPA regions. Rulemaking (Region 7) and permitting (Region 2) may take longer and potentially include opposition to facility location or operation based on actual or expected operating characteristics (e.g., truck traffic and third-shift processing activities). Compliance assurance and enforcement (Region 8) may become more frequent, more stringent, or both. Science (Region 1) may be newly applied to inform risk assessments of potential facility operational impacts to immediate neighborhoods.  

Potential effects from Goal II are likely to be indirect in all 4 priority areas. For Goal II, EPA will join state and local regulators to address EJ concerns in daily program activities (Region 5) and collaborate with other federal agencies to improve overall effectiveness of federal EJ efforts (Region 4). EPA will help community-based groups to build their capacities in conducting EJ activities (Region 3 and Region 10) and tribes and indigenous peoples by improving their access to decision-making processes (R6).  

Potential effects from Goal III are likely to come from the last 2 (air quality and hazardous waste) of the 4 priority areas. For Goal III, EPA will initially undertake the following comprehensive suite of programs: addressing sources of lead, especially from drinking water infrastructure, to reduce childhood blood lead levels; improving drinking water quality to meet health standards; reducing sources of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) to meet applicable national ambient air quality standards; and reducing exposure to contamination from hazardous waste sites. EPA will evaluate these activities’ progress and develop additional EJ measures and associated strategies. EPA’s efforts on sources of PM2.5 and on potential exposures from hazardous waste sites seem the most-relevant to recycling facilities, especially if EPA views the recycling industry through the lens of its flawed damage cases and EJ studies from the Definition of Solid Waste (DSW) rulemaking.  

EJ2020 also includes a national measures technical appendix, “Significant National Environmental Justice Challenges: Measures Technical Information.” This appendix outlines the goals and measures (metrics) for quantifying thresholds of success for Goal III to reduce childhood blood lead levels, to improve drinking water quality, to reduce ambient PM2.5, and to reduce exposures to chemicals from hazardous waste sites.  

Second, EJSCREEN is EPA’s EJ mapping and screen tool to help advance EJ 2020’s priority areas (see above). It is designed and intended to be widely used by communities, state and local regulators, etc. EJSCREEN provides an initial indication of EJ potential to inform a variety of EJ activities, such as outreach and enforcement, and policy-making. However, EJSCREEN neither identifies EJ communities nor provides comprehensive, real-time environmental information, some of which may be outdated. Nonetheless, EJSCREEN can be expected to be used in connection with rulemaking, permitting, and compliance assurance and enforcement.  

Lastly, the EJ Technical Guidance describes the scientific methods that EPA uses to assess potential EJ concerns in rulemakings. It presents key analytic principles and definitions, best practices, and technical questions to frame EJ considerations in regulatory actions. Key principles and concepts include disproportionate impact (between EJ and comparison populations), susceptibility (to health stressors), cumulative risk (from multiple sources of stressors), risk characterization, and risk assessment. This Technical Guidance will likely be used to estimate the risks posed by recycling facilities to people in the immediate vicinity. The assessments of risk and cumulative risk may be the most important aspects of EPA’s EJ efforts because quantification of disproportionate impact between EJ and comparison populations has the potential to reveal “potentially actionable disproportionate impacts”. It is worth noting that the Technical Guidance uses the DSW rulemaking and the DSW exclusions, which include the exclusion for recycled scrap metal, to illustrate a community-level analysis of potential disproportionate impacts to EJ communities.


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