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Environmental Justice Update: EPA Updates EJ Equity Action Plan
Friday, February 23, 2024
The Biden Administration’s efforts to address environmental justice (EJ) concerns continue. This month, US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced modifications to EPA’s Equity Action Plan.

We discussed EPA’s Equity Action Plan last year when it was announced. On February 14, EPA released its 2023 Update to its Equity Action Plan, which is available here. The 2023 Update provides a progress report on the priority action items and sets forth new commitments for the coming year.

Progress Report: The 2023 Update includes a summary of actions taken under the prior Equity Action Plan. Noted achievements include:

  • The establishment of an Environmental Justice Thriving Community Technical Assistance Center program, including 13 regional centers and three nation-wide centers, to reduce barriers for communities to access federal grant funding. EPA selected 11 of these centers to receive $600 million in federal grant money through the Inflation Reduction Act that the centers will distribute through sub-awards at the community level.
  • Additional technical assistance programs will assist community organizations with accessing the $2 billion in Inflation Reduction Act grant money available through the Environmental and Climate Justice Community Change Grants Program. This assistance will include a streamlined application process as well as project-specific technical assistance provided directly by experience contractors.
  • EPA’s establishment of the Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights (OEJECR), including roughly 200 staff members dedicated to environmental justice and civil rights issues. OEJECR staff will process grant applications from communities with environmental justice concerns, engage in community and stakeholder outreach, conduct civil rights compliance reviews, and review civil rights complaints.
  • EPA awarded over $11 billion in funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to improve access to clean drinking water.

New Commitments: Going forward, the 2023 Update sets out eight priority strategies, four of which are carried over from the initial plan; the other four are new:

  • Strategy #1: Improve access to federal funding and assistance programs for communities with environmental justice concerns.
  • Strategy #2: Reduce cumulative environmental and health impacts in communities with environmental justice concerns.
  • Strategy #3: Strengthen EPA’s external civil rights compliance program and ensure that civil rights compliance is an agency-wide responsibility.
  • Strategy #4: Protect children equitably from exposure to environmental contaminants (new).
  • Strategy #5: Address inequitable access to information and resources to improve engagement and health impacts in rural communities (new).
  • Strategy #6: Ensure public access to EPA programs and activities and ensure full protection from health and environmental harms for people with disabilities (new).
  • Strategy #7: Strengthening community-based participatory science to achieve environmental equity in communities with environmental justice concerns.
  • Strategy #8: Improve data and analytical capacity to better identify and remove barriers faced by communities with environmental justice concerns (new).

Other than that EPA continues to push EJ in the next year, what else should the regulated community take away from the 2023 Update?

  • Continued focus on community engagement. Disparities between communities which are identified as EJ communities — or “environmentally overburdened” — have many causes. The Biden Administration has emphasized more equitable access to the levers of power as a primary arrow in its quiver. (Our past discussion is here.) The 2023 Update expands on prior commitments by a committing to a series of specific actions through operationalizing the Thriving Community Technical Assistance Centers and Community Change Grants Program, as well as partnering with state, local, and community groups to share data for equity analyses. (See also our prior discussion here.)
  • Targeted emphasis on specific populations. Following feedback from stakeholders, the 2023 Update includes additional emphases on three specific populations: children, those identifying as disabled, and rural communities.
    • Children: EPA emphasizes that children face increased exposure to environmental contaminants (i.e. through breastfeeding, crawling, or hand-to-mouth exposure) and that even small exposures can have serious impacts to childhood development. In the 2023 Update, the agency commits to devoting additional compliance and enforcement resources to address potential lead exposures to children and to supporting maternal health initiatives.
    • People with Disabilities: EPA acknowledges that it has historically lacked the capacity to ensure that all EPA programs and activities are accessible to people with disabilities. The agency commits to developing program-specific plans and procedures for ensuring accessibility. It will also conduct a physical assessment of EPA facilities to identify accessibility issues.
    • Rural Communities: EPA notes that rural communities often face less access to federal environmental information and assistance opportunities despite a greater dependence on natural resources. In the 2023 Update, EPA commits to providing additional outreach as well as technical and financial assistance to rural communities, with particular emphasis on water and wastewater infrastructure development.

In general, the 2023 Update largely continues the Biden Administration’s “whole of government” approach to tackling environmental justice issues.

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