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The Insider

The Biden administration is taking several steps to follow through on environmental justice (EJ) policy goals including targeting environmental enforcement in EJ communities, but questions remain on whether the administration will be able to devote new resources to equity measures.

The acting head of EPA’s enforcement office is outlining several goals “to help advance the protection of communities disproportionately impacted by pollution:”

OECA Orders More Inspections, Greater EPA Enforcement In Equity Areas
EPA’s acting director of the Office of Enforcement & Compliance Assurance (OECA) is directing staff throughout the agency to advance the protection of environmental justice (EJ) communities by boosting inspections and enforcement facilities in equity areas while increasing engagement with residents living in such locations.

Acting OECA Assistant Administrator Lawrence Starfield says in a recent memo to enforcement staff and managers at EPA headquarters and regional offices that he developed the recommendations after giving a briefing to Administrator Michael Regan outlining staff-developed actions to strengthen enforcement and help advance protection of EJ communities using existing resources.

The memo outlines three goals, starting with a call to increase inspections and plan to evaluate programmatic inspections that can address the most serious threats, using national compliance initiatives. A second goal is to strengthen enforcement in EJ communities overburdened by pollution by resolving environmental noncompliance through remedies with tangible benefits for the community. And a third goal is to increase engagement with communities about enforcement cases that directly impact them, including by providing them more information about facilities, pollution and enforcement action, and increasing their awareness of tools such as EJSCREEN and compliance history data.

While Starfield’s memo is focused on how to best use existing resources to address EJ, the Biden administration has proposed boosting the budget for EJ enforcement at the Department of Justice, although details are lacking about whether this will be new funding:

Despite Budget Boost, Scope Of DOJ Equity Enforcement Remains Unclear
Despite President Joe Biden’s proposed $5 million increase in fiscal year 2022 for the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Environment & Natural Resources Division (ENRD) to bolster environmental justice (EJ) enforcement in line with his top priorities, industry sources and environmentalists say it is unclear how ENRD will use the funds.

Several former Trump officials and industry sources say they are taking a wait-and-see approach for whether and how DOJ elevates EJ, noting that neither a detailed budget nor an appendix nor a congressional justification document have been released to show whether the $5 million announced is new money.

The proposed FY22 budget Biden submitted to Congress April 9 seeks massive funding hikes for climate change and EJ efforts, including $936 million for a new EPA EJ initiative and an additional $5 million to bolster ENRD EJ work.

“The big thing to watch will be whether they are actually giving ENRD more money, or just putting more strings on ENRD’s existing budget,” one source says. “Congress has held the budget for ENRD flat for a number of years, which in reality means a budget decrease for ENRD because of inflation and the increase in employee salaries.”

EJ advocates on an EPA advisory panel are optimistic about working with the Biden administration to implement past and future recommendations, anticipating their work will have a more enthusiastic reception than during the Trump administration:

NEJAC Eyes ‘100 Days’ Push For Regan On Unimplemented Policy Goals
EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) is crafting a letter to send to Administrator Michael Regan near his 100th day in office that will highlight past NEJAC recommendations the agency is yet to implement, including steps to advance equity in decision-making -- a top priority of the Biden administration.

Dubbed the “100 Days Letter” and planned for submittal to Regan in mid-June to mark the occasion, it will aim to serve several purposes, NEJAC Vice Chair Na’Taki Osborne Jelks said during a May 6 virtual meeting of the council. It will be an appeal about how NEJAC wants to work with EPA, about how NEJAC can work collaboratively with the newly formed White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, and about signaling a desire to return to long-running concerns of the council the agency has not addressed, she said.

NEJAC Chair Sylvia Orduño added that the letter aims to make clear that the panel’s utility goes beyond just raising issues of concern, and that even if past administrators have acknowledged previous recommendations, there needs to be consistency in how those issues are implemented in program offices. Regan was sworn in as the agency’s 16th administrator on March 11.

NEJAC member Melissa McGee-Collier said the letter will be a reminder to the Biden EPA that NEJAC has been working for years on many of the issues that this administration has prioritized.

Meanwhile, EPA has issued a rare preliminary finding of discrimination in Missouri, but civil rights advocates say the measure does not go far enough:

Rights Advocates Fault Rare EPA Discrimination Finding’s Process Focus
Civil rights advocates say a rare preliminary finding of discrimination EPA issued to Missouri is welcome but still disappointing, as it focuses on flaws in how the state complies with EPA nondiscrimination requirements rather than the substance of the complaint that a minority St. Louis community is suffering from disproportionate pollution impacts.

The March 30 preliminary finding of noncompliance from Lilian Dorka, director of EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office, to Missouri Department of Natural Resources Director Carol Comer, “conveys partial preliminary findings” to an administrative complaint filed under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center, the Dutchtown South Community Corp. and other groups.

David Ludder, an attorney who has filed many Title VI petitions with EPA, says the agency’s main concern should be “the abatement of disproportionate impacts on minority communities” but “so far, EPA has dodged the” issue.