chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.



Cumulative risk by any other name: Seeking environmental justice in an era of statutory, regulatory, and scientific uncertainty

Bernadette Marie Rappold, Lawrence Kaleb Pittman, and Travis Kline


  • Redirecting existing authority while developing new science and law could help address disproportionate, cumulative impacts of pollution in environmental justice communities.
  • EPA has taken action to provide the public with new tools to visualize risks within their communities and states.
Cumulative risk by any other name: Seeking environmental justice in an era of statutory, regulatory, and scientific uncertainty
Richard Drury via Getty Images

Jump to:

On his first day in office, President Biden issued Executive Order 14008, calling on federal agencies to prioritize environmental justice and find ways to address disproportionate pollution impacts on low-income or minority communities. The president’s directive is clear and succinct, but its path to implementation far less so, as agencies struggle with statutory limitations, critical data gaps, and budgetary constraints.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan’s tour last November through the South’s “Cancer Alley”—the predominantly Black and low-income, 85-mile swath of Louisiana that is home to more than 25 percent of the nation’s petrochemical plants—highlights the reality of these obstacles. Compared to the national average, residents in certain cities in Cancer Alley are reportedly 50 to 800 times more likely to contract cancer. Some say they no longer sit outside in the evenings to avoid what they describe as a “golden mist” of chemicals that descends when the sun sets.

On his return to Washington, Regan did not announce the closure or relocation of any of these plants, nor did he pledge to impose new permitting terms to curb emissions. Doing so would have exceeded EPA’s authority under the nation’s major environmental laws, which generally provide no framework for addressing cumulative risk. Instead, Regan pledged to aggressively exercise EPA authority to conduct unannounced inspections and follow-on enforcement and to provide $600,000 to impacted Cancer Alley communities to purchase new ambient air monitoring equipment.

While the administrator’s directives are important steps to addressing disproportionate burden and risk, their impacts are uncertain, as are the means to predict and assess them. After all, EPA and the broader scientific community have yet to agree on a common framework for quantifying and managing cumulative risk and hazard, which represent proxies for understanding the multiple environment insults to which environmental justice communities are subject.

EPA currently manages cancer risk and other toxicological hazards (e.g., risk of chronic organ failure) as distinct phenomena. Moreover, it is unclear whether current authorities provide a method to consider and assess the cumulative impact on a system that aggregates human health and environmental impacts. Significant data gaps further complicate the analysis.

Viewed through this lens, it is uncertain how much funding for air monitors will ultimately be required for Cancer Alley, an area of roughly 2,000 square miles: each air quality monitor costs tens of thousands of dollars, with installation, operation, and maintenance adding significantly more. A handful of new monitors, while helpful, is inadequate to foster a more robust understanding of the drivers of cumulative risk. Meanwhile, inhalation exposures tell only part of the story. To effectively manage community-level exposures, other media must be considered—air and water, but also other complete exposure pathways associated with soil, homegrown fruits and vegetables, local fish and shellfish, among others.

Scientists will need years of research to fill data and analytical gaps, to understand cumulative risk and the potential synergistic effects of various contamination sources. In the meantime, EPA has taken action to provide the public with new tools to visualize risks within their communities and states.

For example, EPA’s Office of Compliance recently deployed a new web tool. ECHO Notify users can register to receive weekly emails with local enforcement alerts, such as a notice of violation issued to a nearby facility. Likewise, the agency recently updated its Community Environmental Justice Mapping Tool, EJ Screen 2.0. The update incorporates the newest available demographic information, and provides new indicators on unemployment, food deserts, medically underserved areas, life expectancy, and asthma and heart disease.

While these and other new tools offer overburdened communities greater insight into the multiple risks they face, many still await the environmental justice they seek. Absent other statutory and regulatory authority, EPA is working to resolve a backlog of complaints brought under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits recipients of federal funds and grants from discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in any program or activity.

Title VI recently proved instrumental for an overburdened community in Southeast Chicago. On February 18, 2022, the Chicago Department of Public Health denied an applicant’s permit to operate a scrap metal recycling facility on Chicago’s Southeast side, following community pushback, federal civil rights investigations, and, critical pressure from Regan and other Biden administration officials to suspend permit review pending analysis of likely cumulative impacts to the overburdened community. While this approach secured victory for one community, the transaction costs are high and the procedural steps uncertain.

For now, as federal agencies, including EPA, prioritize their efforts to address environmental justice, it may be helpful for them to think in terms of near-, mid- and long-term goals. Agencies need to redirect enforcement resources to overburdened communities now to ensure, at a minimum, that polluters in these communities are being held to the same standards that apply in less burdened, more affluent communities.

In the midterm, the federal government must make cumulative risk assessment a scientific and socioeconomic research priority and begin to take regulatory actions that push the envelope of the one-pollutant-at-a-time analysis that has long been the hallmark of EPA decision-making. After all, remedying environmental injustice will cost money, and policymakers and taxpayers will want to know that resources are directed to the most urgent problems—that is, toward communities facing the greatest cumulative risks. What are the most important drivers of the overburdening that environmental justice communities face? Which can EPA most effectively address? Which developing technologies, including hyperlocal monitoring devices such as smartphone dongles that measure air pollution, show the most promise? And may the federal government rely on evidence gathered by citizen-scientists in legal actions?

In the long-term, stakeholders from government, business, nongovernmental organizations, and communities must collectively determine the breadth of action to address environmental injustice. If the American experience on other societal ills (e.g., poverty, lack of access to healthcare, disparate public education outcomes) is a guide, consensus may be difficult. While Americans generally agree that people should not be subject to disproportionate environmental insult because of race, ethnicity, or lack of income, they agree less on the lengths to which government should go to remedy it.

Technology may point the way. Increasingly hyperlocal monitoring, big data, and artificial intelligence may provide a kind of “forced transparency” on polluters, where citizens know exactly what is being emitted and when. It is unclear how courts might react to agency actions predicated on the results of citizen-led research and emerging technologies. In the meantime, EPA’s emphasis on inspections and enforcement in overburdened communities may lessen those burdens and demonstrate to citizenry that the cop is on the beat.