HB 652, introduced by Representative Bullock of Philadelphia, defines EJ areas as “geographic area[s] characterized by increased pollution burden and vulnerable populations based on demographic, economic, health, and environmental data.” This definition is broad, and it allows flexibility by requiring the consideration of health, environmental, and socioeconomic data. When demographic and income information is the only factors considered, many communities in our area are often removed from consideration. Under the bill, DEP must use this definition to develop methods to identify EJ areas, designate them, and update them every three years.
The requirements of this bill do not apply to all permit applications within EJ areas. It would only apply to permits for department-regulated activity that may lead to significant public concern due to potential impacts on human health and the environment. For example, permits for underground and surface coal mines, major sources of hazardous and criteria air pollutants, and underground injection control wells associated with oil and gas development qualify. However, the Environmental Quality Board can expand this list through regulation at any time. Notably, permits for oil and gas infrastructure and most pipelines likely would not qualify for the extra protections because they are not considered “major sources.” If this becomes law, the Environmental Quality Board should immediately take steps to include such facilities because they can harm the health and safety of nearby residents and contribute to cumulative impacts and burdens.
The most compelling piece of the bill is the consideration of cumulative impacts, defined as “the totality of existing and imminent environmental impacts and pollution in a defined geographic area, to land, waters, of this Commonwealth or ambient air, and regardless of whether the pollution has been authorized” within the bill.
Most importantly, this legislation authorizes DEP to deny a permit outright or impose additional conditions or mitigation methods on the permit based on cumulative impacts in EJ areas. To aid in this piece of the permitting decision, the applicant must prepare and submit a cumulative environmental impact report that assesses the environmental impact of the facility, the cumulative impacts on the environmental justice area, and adverse environmental effects that cannot be avoided or mitigated if the permit is granted.
Giving DEP the ability to consider and take action on cumulative impacts should help our communities and other disadvantaged communities across the state fight industry expansion dramatically and protect ourselves from further impacts. With this ability, EJ communities would, hopefully, see fewer or maybe no new industrial development sites in the future.
Additionally, the bill requires DEP to hold a public hearing, in a location convenient for all parties, concerning the permit application – unless one is already required. Notice for the hearing must be circulated to the public at least 21 days before the hearing and to the clerk of the municipality where the EJ community is located at least 14 days before the hearing.
Enhanced public engagement is part of DEP’s current Environmental Justice Public Participation Policy; however, only an informational meeting is required – not a public hearing. The purpose of the informational meeting is to inform the public about the nature and scope of the project – not to get public input on the project. Since this bill requires DEP to provide an opportunity for the community’s meaningful participation and to consider any testimony presented in the permit decision, it is a much stronger version of the current policy and something to support.
At the hearing, the permit applicant must provide clear, complete, and accurate information about the facility and the potential environmental and health impacts. This is also a departure from the current EJ Policy because it only encourages applicants to be at the meeting and provide information – it does not require it. The requirement to be there is important so the community can communicate directly with the project managers and hear directly from and give feedback directly to them.
Finally, the bill gives municipalities the right to review permit applications in EJ areas within their jurisdiction and recommend conditions upon which to base the permit or to deny the permit if a specific cause is provided. If DEP overrides a municipal recommendation, they must give notice in the Pennsylvania Bulletin that includes a justification for the override. This is a helpful provision because it allows community members a greater chance to get their concerns heard and addressed. For example, suppose a community member cannot attend DEP’s public hearing. In that case, they can go to their local elected official and express their concerns to be included in the municipal recommendation.
To be clear, the provisions of this bill would not apply uniformly to all permits in all communities across the state, only to certain permits in EJ areas, as defined above, which was a criticism of some Republican legislators in a hearing on the bill. This is a valid criticism. DEP should be able to consider the cumulative impacts when issuing permits in all communities because no one should be disproportionately harmed by industry activity. However, EJ areas are defined as such because they already have disproportionate burdens, and community members already feel the effects of decades of impacts. Non-EJ areas have fewer present burdens, but that doesn’t mean they have none at all. However, even if the legislature cannot pass these protections for all communities across the state, it is crucial they do for the most impacted ones. As a matter of equity, these requirements are necessary now for EJ areas to prevent further harm.
If you have any questions about HB 652 or EJ communities, please email our Community Advocate, Nina, at firstname.lastname@example.org.