Environmental Justice:

EPA Needs to Take Additional Actions to Help Ensure Effective Implementation

GAO-12-77: Published: Oct 6, 2011. Publicly Released: Nov 7, 2011.

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for promoting environmental justice--that is, the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people in developing, implementing, and enforcing environmental laws, regulations, and policies. In January 2010, the EPA Administrator cited environmental justice as a top priority for the agency. GAO was asked to examine (1) how EPA is implementing its environmental justice efforts, and (2) the extent that EPA has followed leading federal strategic planning practices in establishing a framework for these efforts. To conduct this work, GAO reviewed EPA strategy documents and interviewed agency officials and key stakeholders.

In recent years, EPA has renewed its efforts to make environmental justice an important part of its mission by developing a new strategy and approach for integrating environmental justice considerations into the agency's programs, policies, and activities. Under Plan EJ 2014, the agency's 4-year environmental justice implementation plan, EPA's program and regional offices are assuming principal responsibility for integrating the agency's efforts by carrying out nine implementation plans to put Plan EJ 2014 into practice. An important aspect of Plan EJ 2014 is to obtain input on major agency environmental justice initiatives from key stakeholders, including the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice, impacted communities, and states. In developing its environmental justice framework, which consists of agency initiatives, including Plan EJ 2014 and the implementation plans, EPA generally followed most of the six leading federal strategic planning practices that we selected for review. For example, EPA has generally defined a mission and goals for its environmental justice efforts, ensured leadership involvement and accountability for these efforts, and coordinated with other federal agencies--all consistent with leading practices in federal strategic planning. However, EPA has not yet fully (1) established a clear strategy for how it will define key environmental justice terms or identified the resources it may need to carry out its environmental justice implementation plans, (2) articulated clearly states' roles in ongoing planning and environmental justice integration efforts, or (3) developed performance measures for eight of its nine implementation plans to track agency progress on its environmental justice goals. Without additional progress on these practices, EPA cannot assure itself, its stakeholders, and the public that it has established a framework to effectively guide and assess its efforts to integrate environmental justice across the agency. GAO is recommending that EPA develop a clear strategy to define key environmental justice terms; conduct a resource assessment; articulate clearly states' roles in ongoing planning and future implementation efforts; and develop performance measures to track the agency's progress in meeting its environmental justice goals. GAO provided a draft of this report to EPA for comment. EPA disagreed with two of GAO's recommendations, partially agreed with one recommendation, and did not directly address the remaining recommendation. GAO believes that the recommended actions will help EPA ensure clear, consistent, and measurable progress as it moves forward in implementing Plan EJ 2014.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has defined key environmental justice terms in documents, such as its May 2015 Guidance on Considering Environmental Justice During the Development of an Action and related June 2016 technical guidance. In addition, EPA developed an environmental justice (EJ) mapping and screening tool called EJSCREEN. It is based on nationally consistent data and an approach that combines environmental and demographic indicators in maps and reports. According to EPA, it uses EJSCREEN to identify areas that may have higher environmental burdens and vulnerable populations as the agency develops programs, policies, and activities that may affect communities.

    Recommendation: To ensure that EPA continues to make progress toward the effective integration of environmental justice considerations into the agency's programs, policies, and activities, the Administrator of EPA should direct the appropriate offices to develop a clear strategy to define key environmental justice terms in order to help the agency establish a consistent and transparent approach for identifying potential communities with environmental justice concerns.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: According to EPA officials, environmental justice efforts are integrated throughout the agency, making it difficult to conduct an assessment of resources needed. However, these officials noted that the agency has a commitment throughout the agency to implement environmental justice actions in its programs and has held national and regional program managers responsible for implementation of Plan EJ 2014. EPA issued two progress reports on Plan EJ 2014, in February 2013 and February 2014, and a summary of Plan EJ 2014 accomplishments in February 2015.

    Recommendation: To ensure that EPA continues to make progress toward the effective integration of environmental justice considerations into the agency's programs, policies, and activities, the Administrator of EPA should direct the appropriate offices to conduct an assessment of the resources needed under its current plans to integrate environmental justice considerations throughout the agency to help ensure that EPA's staffing and funding resources are sufficient to meet current environmental justice goals and future changes in workload, such as provision of training to support use of key tools and guidance and potential changes in funding levels.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA concurred with this recommendation. According to EPA officials, EPA committed to continue incorporating state perspectives regarding their areas of interest and to engage states regarding their roles and responsibilities. Since February 2012, EPA has engaged states on various aspects of Plan EJ 2014 in an ongoing manner. For example, EPA conducted several special briefings on Plan EJ 2014 for the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS) in 2012. EPA officials noted that EPA has made engagement with states an important part of the development of its efforts to incorporate environmental justice in the permitting process because of its great interest to states. EPA conducted meetings and conference calls with ECOS and various trade associations during the formulation of its EJ and Permitting Implementation Plan. EPA sought input on its first set of proposed actions, published in the Federal Register, to enhance public participation in the permitting process. From this engagement, EPA has learned that state agencies have a rich body of experience on environmental justice and permitting. EPA has incorporated the states' best practices into EPA's own strategies. According to EPA officials, the agency looks forward to engaging states in more and more substantive ways in the future. EPA has taken the position that it needs to lead by example to address environmental justice issues. As EPA gains lessons from this experience, it will share them with states. According to EPA officials, EPA has engaged with states through EJSCREEN, EPA's screening and mapping tool developed under Plan EJ 2014. In addition, EPA has incorporated information on state roles and responsibilities in its EJ 2020 Action Agenda, which was finalized in November 2016.

    Recommendation: To ensure that EPA continues to make progress toward the effective integration of environmental justice considerations into the agency's programs, policies, and activities, the Administrator of EPA should direct the appropriate offices to articulate clearly in its plans the roles and responsibilities of states and continue recently initiated outreach efforts to help ensure that states are meaningfully involved in ongoing environmental justice planning and the subsequent implementation of Plan EJ 2014.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA concurred with this recommendation. EPA's EJ 2020 Action Agenda and EJ 2020 National Measures Technical Appendix, both issued in November 2016, include milestones and measures for implementation. According to the technical appendix, EPA will report available national EJ performance data annually on EPA's EJ 2020 website, as well as progress in improving existing and developing new national EJ measures of progress.

    Recommendation: To ensure that EPA continues to make progress toward the effective integration of environmental justice considerations into the agency's programs, policies, and activities, the Administrator of EPA should direct the appropriate offices to develop performance measures for Plan EJ 2014 to provide EPA managers with the information necessary to assess how effectively the agency is performing relative to its environmental justice goals and the effect of its overall environmental justice efforts on intended communities.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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