Addressing environmental justice (EJ) has been an immediate priority for the Biden administration. Within a week of taking the oath of office, President Biden issued a sweeping executive order with a number of EJ initiatives, including creation of a White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council consisting of the heads of each Cabinet-level and independent federal agency. The order also directed federal agencies to “make achieving environmental justice part of their missions” through development of programs and policies aimed at addressing disproportionately high adverse environmental impacts on disadvantaged communities.

Continue Reading FERC Increases Focus on Environmental Justice

Last week, Washington became the latest state to address environmental justice (EJ) through legislation by adopting the Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act and the Climate Commitment Act into law. The HEAL Act, which is the more comprehensive of the two passed laws, was based on recommendations of a state-funded environmental task force issued in fall of 2020 and seeks to remedy the effects of past disparate treatment of vulnerable communities. The Climate Commitment Act is a more targeted law that establishes a greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions cap-and-invest program with the goal of reducing GHG and criteria pollutants in overburdened communities highly impacted by air pollution. Although the laws become effective on July 25, their major EJ-related requirements take effect at later dates.

Continue Reading Washington Adopts Two Ambitious Environmental Justice Laws

Although environmental justice (EJ) is not a new concept in the context of air permitting, the Biden administration’s increased focus on identifying and addressing disproportionate environmental impacts on low-income neighborhoods and communities of color is likely to spur an increase in EJ claims being raised as part of the public review process for both new air permits and permit renewals. Many, if not most, states do not have statutory or regulatory requirements dictating how EJ concerns must be considered in the air permitting context. Similarly, while there is a patchwork of EJ requirements applicable to federal agency actions, most are imposed by executive order and are not prescriptive in nature, meaning that there is no robust legal framework for considering EJ concerns in the air permitting context at the federal level either. Accordingly, while potential permittees and current permit holders seeking to renew or modify their air permits should be aware that there is an increased likelihood that EJ concerns may be raised by third parties or permitting agencies, there is little certainty about how these concerns will be implemented in the course of permit issuance.

Continue Reading Environmental Justice to Play Significant Role in Air Permitting Process Under Biden Administration

The Biden administration has highlighted Tribal sovereignty and the federal trust responsibility to Tribal Nations as the cornerstones of its federal Indian policy. The involvement of Native American tribes is also a component of the Biden administration’s environmental justice initiatives. Accordingly, on January 26, the Biden administration issued a “Memorandum on Tribal Consultation and Strengthening Nation-to-Nation Relationships” (Presidential Memorandum), which seeks to prioritize regular, meaningful, and robust federal consultation with Tribal Nations. According to the Presidential Memorandum, “History demonstrated that we best serve Native American people when Tribal governments are empowered to lead their communities, and when federal officials speak with and listen to Tribal leaders in formulating federal policy that affects Tribal Nations.”

Continue Reading Biden Administration Announces Tribal Consultation Policy

The topic of environmental justice garnered more attention as the Biden-Harris administration took office. On February 11, HB 432 was introduced by six Democrats in Georgia’s House of Representatives. The proposed bill is titled “Georgia Environmental Justice Act of 2021” and is the first proposed legislation in Georgia that directly addresses environmental justice. Below are the highlights of the contents of the proposed bill.

Continue Reading Environmental Justice in Georgia: Proposal of the Georgia Environmental Justice Act of 2021 (Proposed HB 432)

The Biden administration has already taken several actions that signal its intention to shift to a more federally focused environmental enforcement approach. Although the Trump administration generally adopted a “hands off” approach that afforded states broad deference in deciding when to initiate and prosecute environmental enforcement actions, the new administration appears to be moving toward a more robust federal role in environmental enforcement.

Continue Reading Preparing for a More Aggressive Federal Environmental Enforcement Regime

The COVID-19 pandemic has elevated fiscal concerns of water and sewer service providers, with many states imposing a moratorium on the collection of delinquent bills and the termination of service. The affordability of water and sewer service has also been a central topic in environmental justice discussions. In the midst of this heightened interest, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) released its long-awaited proposed updates to its Clean Water Act (“CWA”) affordability guidance. The pre-publication version of its 2020 Financial Capability Assessment for CWA Obligations (“2020 FCA”) was released on September 15, 2020. The proposal builds on EPA’s prior guidance, issued in 1997, as well as its 2014 Financial Capability Assessment Framework.  The purpose of the guidance is to establish criteria for EPA consideration of the impact of water quality, stormwater, and drinking water requirements on affordability. This information can then be used to prioritize different regulatory requirements and establish longer compliance schedules in permits and enforcement actions.

Continue Reading EPA Issues Long-Awaited Update to CWA Financial Capability Assessment

Environmental justice has received greater attention in 2020, both because it is an election year, but also because of the increased focus on racial inequality since the killing of George Floyd in May 2020. Many states are considering legislation on this topic, but on August 27, 2020, New Jersey passed a significant environmental justice bill, the first to require denial of a permit on environmental justice ground.
Continue Reading New Jersey Passes Significant Environmental Justice Legislation

On March 3, 2020, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) filed with the Illinois Pollution Control Board (Board) proposed regulations establishing standards for coal combustion residue (CCR) surface impoundments, commonly referred to as coal ash ponds, at power generating facilities. The Board published the rules for First Notice on April 16, 2020. The first public hearing was on August 11, and continued on August 12, 13 and 25. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual participation in the hearings was allowed by WebEx or by telephone. The second public hearing, which will allow testimony from the regulated community and other interested parties, is set for 9 a.m. on September 29, and continue as necessary on September 30 and October 1. The hearings are planned to be held in-person at the Board’s offices in Chicago, with virtual participation again allowed via WebEx or telephone. The hearing officer’s order scheduling the hearing dates and providing access information can be found here.
Continue Reading Illinois Pollution Control Board Schedules Second Round of Public Hearings on Proposed Regulations for Coal Ash Ponds

On May 5, 2020, the Illinois Attorney General filed a complaint against a developer and its contractors responsible for demolishing the smokestack of a former coal-fired power plant in Chicago. The suit provides a good reminder that careful planning for the control of fugitive dust emissions is critical during decommissioning activities—and that state legal offices and regulators will keep their eyes on potential environmental issues at coal-fired plants until the last brick comes down.
Continue Reading Coal Plant Demolition Triggers Illinois Air Quality Lawsuit