The EPA is using new firepower to finally start addressing decades of complaints that it and other agencies have ignored environmental justice concerns, the agency’s top official on the issue told Bloomberg Law.
President Joe Biden’s call for an “all of government” approach to environmental equity has allowed the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Justice to flex its muscles and bring other agencies into the fight, its director, Matthew Tejada, said Wednesday.
Tejada’s comments came amid environmental justice advocates’ skepticism that the EPA is moving fast enough to address the disproportionate pollution that has impacted low-income and minority populations for decades.
The office is offering guidance on environmental justice to an array of agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers—which plays a key role in environmental permitting—the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and even NASA, he said.
It’s also working with other agencies to help Biden make good on his pledge to ensure that 40% of the benefits from federal clean energy and other relevant funding combats racial inequities and help communities disproportionately impacted by pollution.
The cooperation—and renewed call for enforcement by EPA Administrator Michael Regan—is a stunning turnaround from the days when the issue was largely sidelined by the Trump administration, said Tejada, who’s worked on environmental justice issues at the agency since 2013. Prior to that, he spent more than five years as executive director of Air Alliance Houston, a non-profit group with an environmental justice focus.
“This is the first administration where EJ has not had to fight to get into the room where the decision would be made,” Tejada said. “It has always been a fight. In the last administration, it was a particularly challenging and sometimes overwhelming fight to try to get into the room. And we weren’t in the room very often.”
VIDEO: Environmental justice gained traction in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Forty years later, impacted communities still have limited legal options to combat negative environmental impacts.
Meanwhile, the EPA is waiting to see how much money it will get from Congress for its environmental justice push. President Joe Biden’s fiscal 2022 budget would invest $900 million to elevate environmental justice as a core EPA effort.
In addition to their concerns about the administration moving quickly enough, environmental justice advocates worry that the administration’s pledge to include those communities in the U.S. clean energy revolution will amount to little, or will simply be reversed by the next administration.
The environmental justice office, a 26-person policy shop, has been working with White House offices, including the Council on Environmental Quality and Domestic Policy Council, on how to implement the Justice40 effort. But the EPA has a total of roughly 80 employees working on some aspect of the environmental justice issue, including in its regional offices.
That effort seeks to steer investments toward low-income and minority communities, from clean energy and efficiency funding to housing, transit, and environmental programs, including remediating legacy pollution and rebuilding the nation’s clean water infrastructure.
Tejada’s office is working on a “more consistent base of information, tools, and resources” for all significant EPA programs, which have been tasked by Regan to include environmental justice in their daily work.
“We’re not going to go into the water office and figure out how the state revolving fund program can more equitably assist communities with EJ concerns to get them better drinking water,” Tejada said. “We need the folks who run that program to figure that out.”
“But we’ve got to be there, providing the training and the tools and the consultation expertise to help them figure that out in their own program,” he added.
The EPA is planning to elevate its own environmental justice efforts by creating a new Senate-confirmed assistant administrator, who would oversee an expanded national environmental justice program office according to the agency’s proposed fiscal 2022 budget.
Enforcement is another area already seeing changes since Regan was confirmed as EPA administrator three months ago.
Its enforcement arm issued a memo June 21 to strengthen the agency’s tools for detecting “environmental crimes in overburdened communities” but also to maximize assistance to the Justice Department, which pursues criminal violations of environmental law.
The memo from Lawrence Starfield, acting assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, said the EPA will work more closely with DOJ on enforcement efforts to prevent “subsequent pollution crimes in communities, which means that punishment for environmental crimes must be sufficient to achieve the goal of deterrence.”
In some cases the agency will seek restitution and possibly community service “to redress harm” to communities caused by environmental violations, the memo said.
Tejada said that shows the EPA is taking"meaningful” steps now, while Biden continues to ramp up the Justice40 effort and the agency awaits congressional approval of its next budget, to put environmental justice front and center.
“Our enforcement office is surging forward and doing everything it can to identify it every opportunity available to start practicing environmental justice more meaningfully in our enforcement and compliance assurance,” he said.