National Environmental Policy Act: Recommendations for environmental justice

Earlier this summer, the federal Council for Environmental Quality (CEQ) proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that could get us closer to analyzing climate change impacts, addressing the concerns of environmental justice communities, and uplifting the role of Tribal governments.  Most notable are revisions that reinstate many of NEPA’s principles and functions that were improperly deleted or changed during the last administration. Just Solutions submitted comments for further improvement on these proposed revisions to NEPA regulations.

For decades, NEPA has increased government accountability and transparency by allowing the public to get notified about and provide input on proposed projects that could be happening in their communities. NEPA requires federal agencies to analyze and disclose a project’s environmental impacts, examine potential alternatives, and propose mitigation measures meant to address the impacts of a project. This law is incredibly important to environmental justice communities, many of which have successfully used this law to raise concerns about the environmental impacts from proposed highways, pipelines, and other types of harmful projects.

Just Solutions provided recommendations on a couple of the environmental justice revisions, including:

  1. Enhancing the definition of “environmental justice” proposed by CEQ to heighten the importance of federal agencies to conduct “meaningful engagement”;
  2. Suggesting a definition of “communities with environmental justice concerns” so that CEQ, federal agencies, and the public can have a shared understanding of racial and socio-economic characteristics that shape these communities;
  3. Highlighting specific items to include in future required environmental justice analyzes conducted under NEPA;
  4. Recommending strategies to improve public engagement for environmental justice communities.

More specifically, we proposed that CEQ add several guidelines to environmental justice analyzes done under NEPA. First, echoing an earlier recommendation offered by the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, that CEQ require Health Impact Assessments (HIAs) to better inform an analysis on alternatives and mitigation measures that could reduce the health burdens a project may impose on a community. The NEPA process could also benefit from community health and public health experts on NEPA study teams. We also noted the importance of directly addressing concerns regarding compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as part of any EJ analysis.

In terms of public engagement, we proposed several ways agencies could improve participation of EJ communities and, in particular, people with limited English proficiency affected by projects. We asked that documents be provided at least 15 days in advance of public hearings, if an agency decides to hold such a meeting, opting for evening meeting times, and selecting meeting locations that are accessible by public transit. We recommend that physical and digital copies of key documents are provided in multiple languages, that at a minimum, agencies translate the executive summary and the EJ analysis sections in primary languages dominant in the communities affected by a proposed project.

We will continue to work with our partners to ensure that our environmental justice recommendations are included in the final rule.