EPA eyes cumulative pollution to boost environmental justice

Source: By Kelsey Brugger, E&E News • Posted: Sunday, January 15, 2023

Semitruck in front of power plant

EPA issued new guidance for addressing cumulative pollution impacts on low-income and minority communities across the country. David McNew/Getty Images

EPA on Wednesday released a new playbook for confronting the onslaught of pollutants in low-income and minority communities across the country.

The “cumulative impacts addendum” builds on a policy from May that helps dictate how the federal government considers pollution and climate change in communities of color when enforcing environmental statutes (Greenwire, May 26, 2022).

“At EPA, we’re committed to protecting the health and environment of all communities,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement, “including those historically marginalized, overburdened, underserved, and living with the legacy of structural racism.”

The policy itself does not have legal muscle, but it discusses various regulatory mechanisms under the Clean Air Act as well as water and waste management programs. “Individuals, communities, and tribes are exposed to numerous stressors from a wide array of sources through multiple pathways,” the addendum says. “These stressors can aggregate and accumulate over time, affecting health and well-being.”

The addendum provides examples of the agency’s legal authorities on permitting, regulations, cleanup, emergency response, funding, planning, state oversight and grants — in order to consider the experiences of communities burdened by industry.

It details a wide range of authorities that can be deployed to address multiple sources of pollution and other factors affecting public health. But it caveats that whether and how EPA uses its authorities will depend on the particular law or regulatory policy and context at hand “as well as resources available to the agency.”

That could be the sticking point, given the agency’s well-documented resource constraints. In addition, EPA has previously expressed concern about what falls within its legal authorities, which could be further hamstrung by a conservative-leaning Supreme Court. Last year, the court restricted agency authority in regulating power plants in what could be a foreshadowing of future verdicts.

Still, the policy stresses EPA can lay the groundwork for future actions in environmental justice communities — and that it “has a key role in meeting those challenges.”