EIGHT MAPS TO STENGTHEN ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE POLICY IN PENNSYLVANIA
There is less than one week left to comment on Pennsylvania’s recently revised environmental justice policy, available here. We’ve made eight maps of social and environmental injustices across the state to help residents consider ways this policy could be strengthened.
Pennsylvania’s environmental justice policy is an important tool for protecting marginalized communities from environmental harms – but it needs your input!
There is less than one week left to comment on the state’s recently revised policy, available here.
Environmental justice (EJ) policies recognize that low-income and communities of color experience a disproportionate burden of pollution and environmental threats, and are designed to rectify that. In Pennsylvania, the EJ policy gives these neighborhoods tools to participate in the decision-making process for certain proposed polluters, like landfills and major sources of air pollution, proposed in their neighborhoods.
Pennsylvania’s existing EJ policy was released in 2004. In the years since, environmental justice communities and organizations have called for changes to strengthen the policy. The DEP has finally responded to these demands and has released a revised version, which the public can comment on through May 11th using the DEP’s online eComment tool or by e-mail to email@example.com, or mailed to:
Technical Guidance Coordinator,
Department of Environmental Protection, Policy Office, Rachel Carson State Office Building,
P.O. Box 2063,
Harrisburg, PA 17105-2063
New oil and gas engagement section
One of the major changes to the policy is the inclusion of an oil and gas public engagement section (see Section IV on page 15). The policy encourages the DEP to annually assess operators with activity in designated EJ areas. It states that the DEP should convene a community meeting with local officials, the public, and other stakeholders when a new fracking permit is proposed in an EJ area. It also states that the DEP should develop a webinar on the oil and gas permitting process.
This is a step in the right direction since in the past, the EJ policy did not apply to oil and gas development, and public participation with regards to this industry throughout the state is very limited. It’s also a testament to the organizing power of people throughout Pennsylvania who have called for more attention to this issue. However, there are a lot of “shoulds” and not enough “musts” in this section and throughout the policy, creating too much wiggle room for the industry and DEP to skip over these guidelines. Strengthening this language is important for giving the policy more teeth.
Defining EJ areas
The draft policy doesn’t make changes to the original definition of a EJ area, which is: “any census tract where 20 percent or more individuals live at or below the federal poverty line, and/or 30 percent or more of the population identifies as a non-white minority.”
The policy states that this definition will be outlined in a separate document, allowing them to be updated using the most recent data available.
Many environmental justice leaders in the state are calling for an expanded definition of an EJ community. We made eight maps that show why and how the state’s EJ definition should be expanded.
The definition “20 percent or more individuals living at or below the federal poverty line” leaves out a lot of communities facing financial hardship
While the federal poverty line is an important way to determine where the most impoverished people are, there are other indicators that give a more comprehensive look at where people are facing financial struggles.
Map 1 shows the percentage of households with annual incomes below a quality of life threshold. As you can see, a lot of the state has a high percentage of such households.
Map 1) Households living below a quality of life income threshold in Pennsylvania. Income data on this map layer are from U.S. Census American Community Survey 5-year Summary Data for 2008–2012. Retrieved from the EnviroAtlas, April 2022.
Unemployment is another indicator to consider, shown in Map 2. Census tracts with high unemployment indicate underlying disparities and could be another indicator used to determine EJ areas.
Map 2) Map showing national percentile ranks for unemployment, by census tract. Unemployment data from the American Community Survey from 2015-2019, retrieved from the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool.
Language Access is very important to consider when implementing a policy about public participation
Map 3) Map showing the national percentile ranks for households with limited English speaking ability by census tract. Data from the American Community Survey from 2015-2019. Retrieved from the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool.
The DEP’s draft EJ policy does mention issues around language access, including the Office of Environmental Justice’s role in implementing a Language Access Plan to ensure that people that don’t speak English or have communication challenges can participate in the decision making process. However, the languages spoken in an area are not considered when defining EJ areas. Map 3 shows a percentile for linguistic isolation – which is a measure used by the US Census Bureau of households where “all members aged 14 years and older speak a non-English language and also speak English less than “very well” (i.e., have difficulty with English).” As you can see, there are many tracts that rank high by this percentile in the Philadelphia-area that are not considered EJ areas.
The DEP could strengthen its EJ definition by considering languages spoken.
The existing polluting infrastructure in a census tract should be taken into consideration when defining EJ areas
Map 4) Map of unconventional well activity overlaid with Pennsylvania’s EJ-designated census tracts. Data from the PA DEP, retrieved April 2022.
Places that already have a high concentration of fracking, mining, and other sources of pollution should be considered EJ areas.
Community members in extraction-heavy regions should have a stronger voice on the decision to permit additional polluters. As shown in Maps 4 and 5, a significant amount of fossil fuel activity is taking place in areas that are not classified as EJ.
Consider existing data on pollution when determining EJ areas
Map 6) Map of wastewater discharge in Pennsylvania, as a national percentile, overlaid with Pennsylvania’s EJ-designated census tracts. Retrieved from the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, April 28, 2022.
Map 7) Map of particulate matter 2.5 (PM 2.5), an air pollutant, as a national percentile, overlaid with Pennsylvania’s EJ-designated census tracts. Retrieved from the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, April 28, 2022.
Pennsylvania’s waterways and airsheds are already very polluted, as Maps 6 and 7, respectively, demonstrate. Luckily, there is data on air and water pollution that the DEP could consider when defining EJ areas.
Looking at more than just “people data” is especially important in rural areas, where there are less people
Map 8) Map comparing census tract sizes in rural and urban areas. Census tracts try to delineate areas with an average of 4,000 people, so they are much larger in rural areas. Census tract data from the US Census Bureau.
The draft policy states that the “Area of Concern” for a proposed project is a 0.5 mile radius around the proposed permit. Therefore, to determine if the project will impact an EJ area, one must look at all of the census tracts within that radius. The number of people in a census tract can vary, but the optimum number is 4,000 people.
In urban areas, census tracts are small, and a 0.5 mile radius is likely to overlap with multiple census tracts. As seen in Map 8, a permit for a facility in an urban area could have an Area of Concern that overlaps 4 or more census tracts and therefore well over 4,000 people. This also means more people will likely be engaged in the permitting process.
In rural areas where people are more spread out, census tracts are much larger, and the area of concern is likely to be entirely within one census tract. Less people may be impacted by a facility, but there could also be less people engaged in the permitting process.
In Pennsylvania, the fossil fuel industry takes advantage of this disparity and is very active in rural regions, exploiting and contaminating natural resources in regions where fewer people live. In rural areas, it’s extra important to look at indicators of environmental justice beyond demographic data. As mentioned above, the DEP must consider the footprint of existing industry and pollution. Other indicators, such as proximity to healthcare, could be used to prevent injustices in rural Pennsylvania.
Additionally, the DEP could use a larger radius for the Area of Concern to account for the fact that the impacts of polluters are often felt beyond 0.5 miles.
The data exists – use it to empower action!
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):
“Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. This goal will be achieved when everyone enjoys:
- The same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and
- Equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”
Pennsylvania’s existing definition of an EJ area is a start, but it isn’t enough to protect communities that are already facing social injustices and excessive pollution from the fossil fuel industry. Luckily, incorporating more demographic and environmental factors is an achievable step the DEP can take to rectify this issue.
Plus, other government bodies are already doing this work, for example the Biden Administration’s climate and economic justice screening tool, creating a precedent for instituting more meaningful policies.
Beyond defining the environmental justice definition, FracTracker echoes the recommendations of environmental justice groups such as the PA Climate Equity Table and the Center for Coalfield Justice in asking that the EJ policy be triggered by all new permits, not just select ones.
Additionally, the draft policy could be strengthened by mandating the DEP to do more with the comments it receives from EJ communities – which are often just recorded and not considered in any meaningful way. Instead, the DEP must provide a comment response document when decisions are made on a permit to show how the agency took community feedback seriously.
It’s important that all Pennsylvanians participate in this comment period—it’s one important way out of many that we can make steps towards Environmental Justice. Remember, the deadline to submit your comment is May 11th.
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