Top brass on defense as environmental justice advocates slam climate rule

Source: Robin Bravender, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, October 3, 2014

Some of U.S. EPA’s environmental justice advisers are unhappy with the agency’s proposal to clamp down on greenhouse gases from power plants, arguing that it doesn’t do enough to protect already overburdened communities.

Tensions over the rule were running high this week during a gathering of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council in Arlington, Va.

After EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy spoke to the group yesterday, affirming her agency’s commitment to focusing on environmental justice issues, she was taken aback by some blunt criticisms from NEJAC member Nicky Sheats, director of the Center for Urban Environment in Trenton, N.J.

“Many of us in the [environmental justice] community are very disappointed with the Clean Power Rule,” he told the EPA chief.

“Why?” McCarthy asked, clearly surprised.

Sheats and other environmental justice advocates told agency officials that the proposed rule doesn’t directly address environmental justice inequity and gives states too much leeway when it comes to clamping down on greenhouse gases. EPA has touted how the rule is expected to also reduce local air pollutants that often disproportionately affect low-income communities, thereby averting some other negative health impacts and possibly saving lives.

But in EPA’s search for flexibility for states, Sheats said, “The rule is so flexible that there’s no guarantee those lives are going to be saved in EJ and overburdened communities.” The proposal, he said, concedes that the rule may in fact increase emissions in certain locations and says states can choose to address that. “It doesn’t say the states should address it; it doesn’t say the states have to address it,” he said.

Sheats continued to press the issue today when EPA’s acting air chief, Janet McCabe, met with the advisory group. “The commitment to environmental justice needs to be demonstrated by incorporating environmental justice aspects into a rule that may be the most important that EPA will ever promulgate,” he told her.

McCarthy told Sheats yesterday, “I couldn’t disagree with you more,” in response to his complaints that overburdened communities wouldn’t be adequately safeguarded.

EPA is working within the confines of the Clean Air Act, she said, noting that she doesn’t think that law is the best way to tackle climate change.

“I will agree that the Clean Air Act is not the ultimate solution to the issue of climate change … although it gets great benefits on other types of pollutants,” McCarthy said. “But we’re using a statute as effectively as we can, as opposed to waiting around for what could be a much more comprehensive approach that Congress might choose to design, which it has not.”

Despite the flexibility that’s built into the rule for states, “those carbon emissions are going to be federally enforceable and guaranteed,” she said.

“We’re doing the best we can with it, Nicky, and give us comments on how we can do better, but this is not a rule that can be tailored to local communities. It is a state planning process by law that needs to be done,” she added, noting that carbon doesn’t have localized impacts.

But it’s the co-benefits of reducing greenhouse gases that Sheats and other environmental justice advocates are still concerned about. “We think something can be mandated or incentivized to get those reductions where they’re needed most,” he said.

McCarthy and McCabe both insisted they were open to hearing more ideas about how to change the rule.

“We’re not done,” McCabe said today, noting the high volume of comments that have poured into EPA about the highly contentious rule. “I am certainly open to discussions whenever people want to have them.”