Pennsylvania is revising its environmental justice policy. Here’s what’s changing

Pennsylvanians have until May to comment on the state’s policy for engaging with communities that face disproportionate environmental hazards.

Protesters gather in a parking lot at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery office on Passayunk Avenue in South Philadelphia on Feb. 9, 2020. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Protesters gather in a parking lot at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery office on Passayunk Avenue in South Philadelphia on Feb. 9, 2020. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

It’s your last chance to comment on the state’s policy for engagement with residents of poor communities and communities of color that face disproportionate environmental hazards.

Officials with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) released a final draft revision of the state Environmental Justice Public Participation Policy Friday.

“We’re looking to sort of build on and expand from that policy from critiques we’ve heard,” said Justin Dula, acting director of the state’s Office of Environmental Justice.

“Back in 2004, Pennsylvania was leading the way and was fairly early in having a policy around environmental justice,” Dula said. “But some other states have surpassed us since then. So we’re looking to again be on the forefront with this policy.”

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The draft revision significantly broadens the existing policy, which dates back to 2004 and provides residents of so-called “environmental justice areas” extra information and engagement opportunities during the permitting process for projects in their neighborhoods — like landfills, industrial wastewater facilities or mining operations — that will impact the environment or public health. The changes were developed through outreach meetings over the past several years, with the goal of incorporating residents’ views into more aspects of DEP work and providing tangible benefits to communities.

“We’ve definitely heard feedback and frustration around the fact that it was only focused on the public participation aspect of things and only in the permitting process, when communities are facing issues and concerns … on other items that the Department of Environmental Protection enforces,” Dula said.

The current policy defines environmental justice (EJ) areas as communities where at least 20% of residents earn below the federal poverty line and/or 30% identify as “a non-white minority” — putting nearly a third of Pennsylvanians, and almost the entire City of Philadelphia, in an EJ area. But the state’s map of these areas could change as frequently as every other year under the proposed revision, using the latest American Community Survey data.

Dula said DEP may also consider changing the indicators it uses to define EJ areas using models from other states — such as California’s CalEnviroScreen, which takes into account a multitude of indicators like education level, English language proficiency, asthma rates, and actual air and water quality to produce a tiered rating system for communities.

Under the EJ policy revamp, DEP could prioritize inspections of polluting facilities in EJ areas or in areas “where environmental and public health conditions warrant increased attention.” Where possible, the agency could even increase penalties in these areas. Dula said in certain cases, DEP could look to direct penalty money toward community environmental projects.

“Hopefully have the community see a benefit related to the things that are affecting them negatively,” Dula said.

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Notably, facilities with air pollution permits in the City of Philadelphia would not be subject to the state’s updated EJ policy, as these fall under the authority of the city’s Air Management Services (AMS). Philly’s AMS has its own environmental justice policy for enhanced public participation in and near census tracts that align with the state’s current definition of EJ areas.

The proposed revision of the state’s policy would also require additional community meetings around unconventional oil and gas well permitting activity, which Dula said currently has a mandatory timeline that doesn’t allow for much public participation.

“The target of this is to bring the operators into the room with the community and hopefully help build long-term communication between those groups, so that hopefully can help shape future development as they work together,” Dula said.

The policy revision would also formalize work DEP is already doing, Dula said, such as prioritizing grant applications from environmental justice areas and incorporating justice concerns into the state’s climate action plan.

State officials will hold three virtual hearings —  April 5, April 12 and April 28 —  on the draft policy to gather comments from the public. Dula said officials will listen for anything Pennsylvanians think they’ve left out.

The public comment period ends May 11.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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