Promising Practices for Environmental Justice Methodologies in NEPA Reviews

By Suzi Ruhl

When President Clinton signed Executive Order (EO) 12898 on environmental justice over 20 years ago, he singled out two federal laws that could be especially impactful for advancing environmental justice considerations throughout the federal government. One of those laws was the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. And for several years now, federal practitioners have been passionately working to make good on EO 12898’s NEPA mandate by furthering its use as a tool to positively impact the environment, health and economy of overburdened and under-resourced communities. A body of over 100 of my colleagues in the NEPA committee of the Environmental Justice Interagency Working Group (EJ IWG) have been reviewing the federal processes detailed in NEPA to compile the best practices, lessons learned, research, analysis, training, consultation, and other experiences of federal NEPA practitioners to create the a report on “Promising Practices for EJ Methodologies in NEPA Reviews.”

NEPA requires that federal agencies practice informed decision-making by analyzing the potential environmental impacts of a proposed action prior to making a decision regarding that action. During the NEPA process, the agency should evaluate whether or not the proposed action has the potential to cause significant environmental effects. If the environmental assessment of this action illustrates the potential for significant impact, then the agency in question should offer alternatives and plans to mitigate, as well as to monitor the impacts.

During our work, we learned a lot about the forward-leaning actions that different federal agencies have pioneered in regards to how they consider environmental justice concerns throughout the NEPA process. In an effort to build on these achievements across the federal government, we are now putting into action the principles and practices outlined in the Promising Practices Report. The NEPA committee has briefed and trained nearly 1,000 environmental justice and NEPA federal government staff through sponsored events at the Departments of Transportation, Interior, Energy, and Agriculture, with more trainings planned for other federal departments and state agencies.

And, as a direct result of the Promising Practices Report and the accompanying trainings, federal agencies are taking action.

The Department of Energy (DOE) has appointed a full-time employee to serve as an Interagency Liaison between the DOE, EPA, and other federal agencies in an effort to advance the consideration of environmental justice in the NEPA review process. Through performing reviews of the DOE NEPA documents, opportunities have been identified to better engage low-income and minority communities in the NEPA process. DOE-specific community trainings and guidance will be available by early January 2017.

Within the Department of Interior, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has established an Environmental Justice Working Group, which provides guidance to BLM staff and hosts regular trainings. Additionally, the BLM has developed a new tool that allows users—both federal agencies and communities—to better evaluate environmental justice concerns in a specific area.

I look forward to hearing from other agencies on how they are utilizing the Promising Practices Report to improve their NEPA processes. The value of this report is that, when utilized, it will improve the consideration of environmental justice issues and overburdened communities in the NEPA process so that these considerations are effective, efficient and consistent. It has been an honor to work with the NEPA Committee and I am excited to see how we continue to improve our meaningful engagement with our most vulnerable and overburdened communities.

About the Author: Suzi Ruhl is the Co-chair of the NEPA Committee of the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (EJ IWG). She is also Senior Attorney Advisor to the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice. 

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