What the EPA won’t do because its leadership is beholden to polluting industries. What DEQ can’t do for lack of funding and political power. What many local governments refuse to do for fear industry will pass them over.
The state’s 16-member Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board is charged, if not explicitly, to do that. To wield political pressure, backed by the voices from their respective communities, and squeeze the General Assembly, federal and state regulators, and local planning and zoning boards to protect low-income neighborhoods and communities of color from the ravages of pollution.
“When do environmental justice communities get to be made whole?” said board member Veronica Carter at a meeting in Hollister last week. “We’ve got to figure out how to do something in the permit process or these communities will never have a chance.”
An environmental justice analysis is legally required in only one state program: The permitting of solid waste landfills.
Assistant DEQ Secretary Sheila Holman told the board that new landfills require an environmental impact analysis, which includes an assessment of the project on vulnerable communities. DEQ can deny a permit application for a new landfill if the agency determines the cumulative impact disproportionately affects a minority or low income community.
There is no environmental justice requirement in the state for the siting of major air polluters, like wood pellet plants. Such a mandate would require the cooperation of the General Assembly, which under Republican control, has been loathe to add any environmental protections to the state law. In fact, legislators have rolled back many of the protections. Solid waste landfills now are allowed to operate under “life-of-site” permits, sharply curbing communities’ right to comment on the very operations that could contaminate the quality of their air, land and drinking water.
It’s also worth noting that the state’s Environmental Management Commission has significant rule-making authority. EMC members are appointed by the governor and House and Senate leadership. Rarely, if ever, does the EMC discuss environmental justice issues when it approves rules.When do environmental justice communities get to be made whole? Click To Tweet
Board member Jamie Cole asked how the group could advise the Environmental Management Commission not only on justice issues but also on public engagement. The rule-making process can be byzantine and deeply steeped in science and legal minutiae; someone must be able to translate the issues into layperson’s terms. (Holman said EMC Chairman J.D. Solomon has requested to meet Environmental Justice board Chairman Jim Johnson Jr.)
Although political tides could turn in the next election, Regan also noted that any advances DEQ makes under his leadership and that of Gov. Roy Cooper could easily be undone under a different administration. “What should the legislative fix be?” said DEQ Secretary Michael Regan. “What should the General Assembly be required to do for legacy purposes?”
Regan also slipped inn a not-so-subtle criticism of previous DEQ secretaries John Skvarla and Donald van der Vaart, who were appointed by then-Gov. Pat McCrory. That administration routinely ignored environmental justice issues in its pursuit of being “business-friendly.”
“There is a lot willingness from staff to jump in [to address environmental justice],” Regan said. “A lot of this energy had been suppressed.” Read more