Protecting Those That Need it Most

The American public depends on us to pursue serious violators of environmental laws and protect clean air, water and land on which we all depend. Nowhere is this more important than in the minority, low-income, and tribal communities overburdened by pollution. That’s why – as the Assistant Administrator with the honor of overseeing EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice – I’m proud to mark the close of Environmental Justice Month with some reflections on how enforcement has advanced the cause of justice for those most vulnerable to pollution.

Pursuing justice for overburdened communities is an essential part of our enforcement work – from the problems we select for enforcement attention, the violating facilities we address, the way we design relief to remedy violations and past harms, and our engagement with affected communities. We’ve developed methods to screen for potential environmental justice concerns and to determine how necessary enforcement actions can benefit communities.

Here are a few examples to help illustrate this:

Sewage discharges are a public health threat often impacting urban residents, so we’re working with city mayors to tackle the shared challenges these pollution problems present. Together, we make sure that settlements prioritize remedial action in overburdened communities and promote green infrastructure projects to help increase the resilience of cities to climate change, while reducing storm water runoff and discharges of raw sewage that degrade water quality.

The impacts of petroleum refineries and power plants on air quality in surrounding neighborhoods have been a challenge for decades. When negotiating settlements, we require the polluter to make reforms and develop solutions that reduce pollution, clean up the environment and achieve a variety of community benefits. A recent settlement with Shell Deer Park embodies this through reforms to reduce air pollution from flaring, mitigation projects to reduce air toxics, a project to install and operate fence-line monitoring stations to keep the community informed about pollution that can affect them, and retrofitting old, diesel-emitting public vehicles in the area.

When pursuing criminal cases, we’ve seen a strong deterrent impact from traditional sanctions like imprisonment and fines for crimes that threaten the health and safety of overburdened communities. We’re also looking for ways to provide greater protection to affected communities through restitution or community service. For example, as part of the plea agreement with the Pelican Refining Company, Pelican will pay $2 million in community service payments to environmental projects and air monitoring in Louisiana.

These examples of progress are important, but our work is far from done. The next 20 years will require staying out in front of pollution problems and empowering affected communities to take action. Tools like advanced monitoring and electronic reporting, when paired with information technology, can ensure the public receives faster and more accurate information on where to find violations and what to do about them. I am proud of what we have achieved over the last 20 years and I am confident that if we continue to listen to communities, share our work and use the latest technological advances, we will sustain our progress on environmental justice for decades to come.

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