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October 01, 2003

Environmental Justice Plans at the Environmental Protection Agency

Barry E. Hill

Integrating the issue of environmental justice into the federal government's decision-making processes is by no means a simple matter, nor is it near completion. This major undertaking has moved along in fits and starts. Currently, however, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is making great strides by requiring for the first time, for example, that each regional and headquarters office develop and implement comprehensive environmental justice action plans.

Effective Use of Existing Environmental Laws

Unlike states such as California, Florida, and Arkansas, which have passed environmental justice legislation, federal jurisdiction has not yet implemented a body of such law; thus, existing environmental laws must be used more extensively and creatively. Late in 2000, the agency determined that many of the statutes it administers provide various EPA regulatory programs with the explicit authority to address environmental justice concerns, as in the following examples:

  • Setting standards under Section 304(a)(1) of the Clean Water Act;
  • Permitting facilities pursuant to Section 305(c)(3) of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act;
  • Awarding grants in accordance with Section 117(e) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act; and
  • Reviewing actions taken by other federal agencies, states, and tribal governments as a result of Section 309 of the Clean Air Act.

Action Plans

To ensure consistency in addressing environmental justice issues, the Agency's special steering committee developed a template that outlined the following elements: (1) management accountability; (2) internal and external stakeholder involvement; (3) data collection and management; (4) training; (5) environmental justice assessment; and (6) evaluation. The template also allows each region and program office the flexibility to integrate environmental justice into the programs, policies, and activities as it sees fit. Action Plans for FY2003 are available at Updated plans are due this fall. One of the important new features of the upcoming plans is the introduction of performance standards, which will help agency offices determine when all programs, policies, and activities have successfully integrated environmental justice.We believe that what works at the EPA requires fully embracing the notion that if we enforce the laws equally, then environmental justice will be a reality for all communities.

As published in Human Rights, Fall 2003, Vol. 30, No. 4, p.9.

Barry E. Hill

Barry E. Hill is the director of the Office of Environmental Justice at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He has taught an environmental justice course at the Vermont Law School for the last ten years.