Seventeen years after President Clinton issued an Executive Order on the issue, The United State Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") has returned to the issue of environmental justice with the adoption of Plan EJ 2014. Environmental justice is the moniker used to describe efforts to consider whether exposure to environmental risks are distributed evenly throughout society (and in particular, to ensure the fair treatment of low income, minority and indigenous populations). Through Plan EJ 2014, EPA intends to take community characteristics and demographics into account in its regulatory decision-making.
EPA takes pains to underscore that Plan EJ 2014 is not a rule or guidance document, but instead is a "strategy" to integrate environmental justice into EPA’s activities. The vast majority of Plan EJ 2014 summarizes implementation plans for five "Cross-Agency Focus Areas" and four "Tools Development Areas." The Cross-Agency Focus Areas include strategies to incorporate environmental justice concerns into rulemaking, permitting, compliance and enforcement, support for community-based action groups and fostering administration-wide action on environmental justice. Plan EJ 2014 also explores scientific, legal, information management and financial "tools" that can be developed or refined to support EPA’s efforts to evaluate and address environmental and health inequities among overburdened communities. Plan EJ 2014 concludes with a discussion of EPA’s intention to support existing EPA programs that pursue environmental justice goals and the EPA’s intention to improve its civil rights program.
We have seen past EPA efforts to formulate a cohesive strategy to address environmental justice issues. In the late 1990s EPA published a series of guidance documents intended to integrate environmental justice considerations into EPA assorted activities, including the Final Guidance for Consideration of Environmental Justice in Clean Air Act 309 Reviews (July 1999), Final Guidance for Incorporating Environmental Justice Concerns in EPA’s NEPA Compliance Analysis (April 1998) and the Interim Guidance for Investigating Title VI Administrative Complaints Challenging Permits (February 1998). Such efforts were mostly stalled until EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson refocused on environmental justice as an Agency priority. Under Jackson’s leadership, EPA published Interim Guidance on Considering Environmental Justice During the Development of an Action in July of 2010. The guidance outlines a step-by-step process to assist EPA staff in evaluating environmental justice considerations at key points in the rulemaking process. Finalization of this guidance is part of EPA’s strategy outlined in Plan EJ 2014. EPA anticipates releasing the guidance in final form in December 2011. By 2014, EPA intends to mark the 20th anniversary of Clinton’s Executive Order by making an assessment of its progress in achieving this objective as well as the other goals of Plan EJ 2014 in a report analyzing the Agency’s efforts to achieve the specific objectives of the Plan and also more generally the Agency’s efforts to make environmental justice an integral part of every decision.