September 12, 2018 – Earlier this year, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) released a revised draft of its Environmental Justice Public Participation Policy. This policy provides guidelines for the DEP’s approach to the permit review process in Environmental Justice Areas–communities where 20 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line and/or 30 percent of residents are non-white. The policy is intended to make sure that residents in these communities are able to meaningfully participate in the permitting process when new facilities, such as waste processing centers, are proposed in their neighborhood, or when existing facilities expand.
In response to DEP’s call for public comments, the Law Center submitted comments on behalf of two neighborhood organizations in historically disenfranchised communities that we have assisted in local advocacy: the Wynnefield Residents’ Association and the Eastwick Friends and Neighbors Coalition. As a result of their unique experiences, these groups offer valuable insight on ways to make the community engagement surrounding environmental projects in Environmental Justice Areas more meaningful.
In our comments reviewing the proposed amendments to the policy, we commend DEP for taking important steps towards improving public participation standards, including recommending equitable access to information, consultation and accommodation for minority and low-income communities. However, we find that the policy falls short overall in ensuring meaningful community engagement.
We recommend that the policy be enacted as a regulation, with compliance obligations and clearly defined penalties for non-compliance. Currently, these are absent. “As written, the policy is toothless and it is unclear if, and how, DEP would address a [permit] applicant that does not comply with this policy,” we write. Even if the policy is not enacted as a regulation, we recommend that the policy include mandatory, rather than permissive language, when describing actions the DEP should take.
We also recommend several improvements to the draft policy that would help facilitate greater accountability for both DEP and permit applicants. Finally, we suggest that the policy should provide structures and procedures to make it easier for those in historically disenfranchised communities to meaningfully participate in the permit determination process. For example, we urge DEP to create video explanations of project summaries and other important information, recognizing that 13% of adults in Pennsylvania lack basic literacy skills.