One week after assuming office, President Biden issued an Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, which included a directive to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to “strengthen enforcement of environmental violations with disproportionate impact on underserved communities through the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance,” or OECA. As a result, OCEA formed an Enforcement Steering Committee consisting of six senior managers from OECA Headquarters and the Regions to evaluate types of programmatic inspections with an objective of increasing the number of facility inspections in overburdened communities. The OECA will also continue using its offsite compliance monitoring tools at facilities in areas with potential environmental justice (EJ) concerns.
With EPA Administrator Michael Regan overseeing the effort to strengthen enforcement and protections within EJ communities, the EPA established new inspection goals in its FY2022 – FY 2026 Strategic Plan. The plan notes how “effective targeting of compliance monitoring, including inspections in communities with environmental justice concerns, plays a critical role in achieving the goals EPA has set forth for protecting health and the environment.” The plan also established a goal of conducting “55% of annual EPA inspections at facilities that affect communities with potential environmental justice concerns” by September 30, 2026.
Areas with Potential EJ Concerns
While neither EPA nor OECA has a definition of an area with potential EJ concerns, they consider the 80th percentile threshold of EJ Index measures from its Environmental Justice Screening tool (EJScreen) as a starting point. EJScreen includes 11 EJ Index measures that combine environmental information, such as levels of particulate matter (PM) 2.5, with demographic information on percentages of minority individuals and low-income households. EPA provides an “EJ Summary” of EJ Index data on the website for the Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) Notification system developed by OCEA’s Office of Compliance. ECHO’s mapping tool flags those block groups with one or more EJ Index measure at or above the 80th percentile for either the US as a whole or the state.
New Inspections and Related Enforcement
Recognizing health, safety and manpower constraints, the OECA is expected to initially focus new inspections and related enforcement on concentrated industrial corridors or facilities with historic or ongoing compliance violations. However, unanticipated inspections may occur at any time as EPA expands outreach and programs in identified EJ communities. Ultimately, the inspections will focus on facilities in overburdened communities, particularly those with reported health impacts.
Companies operating in areas that the ECHO mapping tool flags should be certain to review their public compliance records in preparation of a possible inspection. An understanding of local demographics, the facility’s environmental and community impacts and reputation with local residents and regulators will preemptively identify opportunities to rectify any potential negative or damaging assessments.
In addition to the increased number of inspections in areas of EJ concern, the EPA has pledged to provide greater public access to compliance data to help communities better understand and manage risks. The EPA will increase engagement with communities so that communities and EPA can share resources and work together to improve compliance. The ECHO system serves to increase community access to EPA information and activity. Users can sign up to receive automated alerts about noncompliance in their local neighborhood, as well as updates on inspections.
To strengthen collaboration, the EPA Regional Offices have entered into agreements with state agencies to jointly advance EJ principles. While EPA staff will coordinate with state and local agencies, they have stated that, if needed, they will intervene where needed action is too slow or delayed. In order to expand and deploy EJ expertise, the EPA recently released a Request for Application with $100 million of funding, to launch new Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers throughout the United States. These training and outreach centers will help to identify EJ needs and community limitations.
Monitoring OECA’s Progress
Projects based in areas with potential EJ concerns (EJ Index > 80th percentile) may wish to monitor OECA’s progress towards achieving their expanded inspection goals to prepare for potential visits. As EPA partners with regional and state agencies, as well as community organizations and stakeholders, it would serve project managers well to connect with local community groups and organizations to ensure awareness of public concerns and issues being discussed in these forums. Some companies may even choose to track and engage local concerns regarding EJ compliance to assure their own understanding and planning within areas of concern.
Glossary of Abbreviations
|Enforcement and Compliance History Online
|Environmental Justice Screening Tool
|US Environmental Protection Agency
|Office of Compliance and Enforcement Assurance
How Can TRC Help?
TRC is prepared to help clients evaluate asset portfolios and potential facility sites to identify potential EJ concerns based on EPA metrics. TRC supports clients as they navigate this complex and evolving landscape, focusing on solutions that address the issues and reflect an understanding of our clients’ business. Accordingly, clients can look to TRC for the informed and pragmatic support they will need to position themselves favorably as EPA’s Strategic Plan unfolds.
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