With policy change, nearly a third of Pennsylvanians live in ‘environmental justice’ areas

  • Marie Cusick

The state Department of Environmental Protection is expanding the number of people who are considered to live in an environmental justice area — a designation aimed at protecting poor and minority communities that often bear the brunt of industrial development and pollution.

The state’s use of census block groups instead of its previous method, using census tracts, captures nearly one-third of Pennsylvania’s population in environmental justice areas. EJ areas are now defined as a census block group with a 30 percent or greater minority population or 20 percent or greater population at or below the poverty level.

It’s the first change in the policy since 2004. The grassroots struggle in the 1990’s to stop the clustering of commercial waste facilities in Chester, Pennsylvania helped spur the environmental justice movement.

Applications for certain things in EJ areas — like landfills or coal mines — are on a “trigger permit list” and get more scrutiny from the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“Block groups are the smallest geographic unit for which the Census Bureau publishes sample data, generally maintaining a population of 600-3,000 people,” the agency said in a news release. “Defining environmental justice areas by census block groups increases the number of people who live in an environmental justice area by 12 percent.”

DEP held a statewide listening tour about EJ issues in seven communities last year and received dozens of requests for more oversight of the Marcellus Shale industry, but DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said oil and gas well permits aren’t being added to the list of EJ trigger permits because the law requires the agency to act on those permits within a 45-day time frame.

“The biggest problem we have there is the calendar,” McDonnell said. “We’re looking at some broader things we can do. There is a discrete well permit, but there’s also well permit activity in an area [such as truck traffic, noise, or lights]. We’re trying to figure out ways to engage with the community impacted by the Marcellus drilling, so we’re giving them a broader perspective of the totality of the activity, as opposed to individual well permits.”

The updated trigger permit list does include underground oil and gas disposal wells, which have been linked to man-made earthquakes in other parts of the country.

Veronica Coptis, of the Washington County-based Center for Coalfield Justice, said overall she’s glad to see the agency updating its EJ policy, “But [DEP is] really missing a big, significant feedback area they received across the Commonwealth — around adding oil and gas permits as a trigger whenever it’s happening in environmental justice communities.”

FracTracker Alliance, a group that uses data to track the risks of oil and gas development, analyzed the issue in 2016 and found only five percent of Marcellus Shale wells were in designated environmental justice areas. That’s because the natural gas boom has mostly occurred in rural regions, where much of the population is white. However, many wells are in lower-income areas. For example, out of nearly 800 wells in a three-county area around Pittsburgh, FrackTracker identified only two wells in places where the median home value exceeded $200,000.

DEP’s previous director of environmental justice, Carl Jones, left the agency last fall. In July, Allison Acevedo, of Philadelphia, was appointed to the position. Previously, she was a strategic planning consultant and an attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor.

“Information, education, and engagement are really critical to ensure we have an open line of communication and feedback from our communities,” Acevedo said. “We want to be engaged in environmental justice in a way that is integrated throughout the department.”

The updated EJ policy is available for public comment through August 28.