New EPA Case Studies on Environmental Justice and Permitting

Posted on June 4, 2013 by Elliott Laws

With the 20th anniversary of Executive Order 12898 soon approaching, EPA has been planning on extensively incorporating “environmental justice” into its permitting processes.  This executive order required all federal agencies to address disproportionately adverse human health or environmental effects of their programs, policies, and activities on minority and low-income populations in the U.S.

To that end, nearly two years ago, EPA issued “Plan EJ 2014” as a roadmap – not as a rule – to implement the executive order throughout the agency.  Specifically, Plan EJ 2014 formally introduced EPA’s priorities of promoting increased public participation in the permitting process and considering more stringent permit conditions.  In February of this year, EPA selected two case studies that highlight the agency’s approach to achieving these permitting priorities.

The first case study involved a recent Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) permit for the Pioneer Valley Energy Center, a power plant expected to generate up to 431 MW in Westfield, Massachusetts.  From the developers’ filing of the permit application in November 2008 through EPA’s issuing of the final permit in April 2012, Region 1 incorporated what it has described as environmental justice into this permitting process by providing enhanced public engagement opportunities and including more stringent conditions in the permit.  These stricter conditions were aimed at limiting the applicant’s ability to burn ultra-low sulfur diesel for testing of its emergency generator when air quality would already be diminished.

The second case study involved a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) general permit for oil and gas exploration in Cook Inlet, Alaska.  Even as this permit has evolved over time, now with federal and state authority split, the subject conditions have been based on environmental justice considerations dating back to 2006-2007.  In the permit’s 2007 iteration, Region 10 incorporated environmental justice into this permitting process by collecting and considering tribal traditional knowledge about the effects of development and by imposing more restrictive permit conditions.  These conditions imposed new monitoring requirements, extended the area where discharges were prohibited for all sources from 1,000 to 4,000 meters from sensitive coastal areas, and explicitly did not authorize several types of drilling discharges for new sources.
 
There are two striking facets of these case studies.  First, even as EPA found no disproportionate adverse effect on minority populations, low-income populations, or tribal populations, EPA still included somewhat more restrictive permit conditions based upon environmental justice considerations.  Second, the imposed conditions do not appear to be particularly onerous – perhaps explaining why the permittees did not challenge the additional restrictions.  Opinions vary as to the impact of these “EJ conditions” on the permitting process, as EPA likely  could have imposed these restrictions under existing statutes and regulations without any reference to environmental justice. 

Nevertheless, EPA seems to be testing the limits of its authority and telegraphing its intent to continue these efforts.  Consequently, practitioners and permit applicants should be wary of EPA seeking to impose potentially unnecessary conditions based upon environmental justice.