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The Insider

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler is increasingly touting the agency’s work on environmental justice (EJ) issues, saying officials are putting a greater focus on equity concerns in waste and water policy and elevating EJ as a top consideration in decisions across all EPA regions.

During remarks last month to EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), Wheeler said EJ is being considered “at the highest levels” of agency decisions:

Wheeler Touts Steps To Promote Equity In EPA’s Work, Denies ‘Rollbacks’
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler is touting the progress the Trump administration is making to consider environmental justice (EJ) “at the highest levels” of agency decisions, while rejecting claims he is pursuing hundreds of rule “rollbacks” and giving polluters a free pass with a COVID-19 enforcement discretion policy.

As one example of an EJ-focused policy, Wheeler cited the looming finalization of EPA’s lead and copper water rule. It is expected to mark the first time that schools and day care centers across the country must screen their drinking water for lead. It is also the first time the rule will have been updated in more than 20 years, he added.

“We want to make sure the water they drink in schools or daycares is free of lead. . . . I think that’s a great news story, a great story for parents . . . and I think this will go a long way to helping ensure that our children are safe,” he said.

During the NEJAC call, he also floated “a community-based approach to environmental protection, which will require a major shift in the way we do business.”

To do this, he asked the advisors for their thoughts on a “new focus to protect the places we love and help the places that have been hurt,” such as frontline communities. “If we focus our attention properly, we can help these communities” become healthy, “what they have been striving so long to be.”

Wheeler also outlined his “community” focus as part of his Sept. 3 major address at President Richard Nixon’s library in Yorba Linda, CA, on EPA’s 50th anniversary, in which he outlined his vision for the agency’s future:

Wheeler Vows ‘Community-Driven’ EPA Agenda In Second Trump Term
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler is setting out an agenda for a second Trump term that would restructure the agency’s operations to break down barriers between program offices, target emerging pollution concerns, and focus on “community-driven environmentalism” that would promote environmental justice.

He argued that his agenda would “do more for environmental justice than all the rhetoric in political campaigns” -- a nod to Democrats’ heavy focus on EJ issues in the 2020 campaign, including a sweeping equity bill sponsored by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), running mate of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

Wheeler said: “This agency has proven it can protect human health and the environment. What it has not accomplished is reaching the environmental justice goals of fairness and good environmental outcomes that this country must achieve if it wants American communities to become better, healthier places to live.”

During media-specific announcements in recent weeks, EPA has also sought to project a focus on EJ concerns. For instance, the agency and states recently pledged to address equity as part of the cleanup effort for the Chesapeake Bay:

EPA, Governors Pledge Increased Diversity, Equity For Chesapeake Bay
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and the leaders of the jurisdictions in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are making a new vow to address diversity, equity, inclusion and justice (DEIJ) in the long-term bay restoration bid, saying the cleanup’s success depends on the equitable, just and inclusive engagement of all communities in the watershed.

The DEIJ statement released Aug. 18 at the annual meeting of the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council “is a good first step” but to fully realize the statement’s goal, “you must be willing to break down systemic barriers,” Janice Underwood, Virginia’s chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, told the committee in a keynote speech.

The document acknowledges the statement is voluntary and not a contract or an assistance agreement. Nonetheless, the signatories to the statement commit to taking several actions.

These include strengthening and improving DEIJ in their organizational structure, leadership, policies, strategic goals, restoration and conservation activities, workplans and program delivery, including guidance on including DEIJ and environmental justice criteria in grant targeting and evaluations.

In the waste arena, Wheeler also cited EJ issues when adding several new sites to the Superfund National Priorities List:

Wheeler Highlights NPL’s Role In Broader Push For Environmental Justice
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler is highlighting the agency’s move to finalize the addition of six new sites to the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL) and propose to add four more as part of a broader push to incorporate environmental justice (EJ) into EPA decisionmaking, saying many of the sites are in EJ communities.

In a Sept. 1 EPA press release on the listing decisions, Wheeler said communities with NPL sites “are a true national priority under the Trump administration.”

He added, “Many of the sites we are adding today are in vulnerable, low-income, and minority communities that deserve our attention. EPA is demonstrating our commitment to assist overburdened communities in becoming cleaner, healthier, and more prosperous places to live, work, and go to school."