Joseph Otis Minott
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), claims it cares about environmental justice. It claims that its plan ensures fair treatment and meaningful participation of all people, regardless of their income or race, when it comes to protecting and implementing environmental policies. DEPs commitment for environmental justice is often a weak link in real-world environmental issues. It is time that the Wolf administration takes environmental justice seriously, not just on paper but in practice.
Clean Air Council is one of the oldest environmental non-profits in the state and has worked with DEP for many years. These interactions have shown us that the Department was unwilling to accept responsibility for its Environmental Justice Public Participation Policy. The DEP repeatedly stated to us that the EJ policy is a guideline and cannot be ignored.
So, when DEP announced that they were updating their environmental justice policy, we were both encouraged and skeptical. Many environmental justice advocates and communities have little faith that the DEP leadership will take a revised policy more seriously. We need concrete environmental justice regulations, which must be enforced either by DEP or, failing this, the courts.
There are many examples where DEPs refuse to adhere to their environmental justice commitments. But, Renovo, a small town north of State College is a troubling case study. Renovo is a prime example where DEP fails to remember and then ignores its environmental justice obligations. Since the railroad industry left, the town has been in difficult times. It is still plagued by groundwater and soil contamination. Bechtel proposed in 2015 to build a power station in the middle of the town that would produce literally millions of tons of pollution each year. In 2017, DEP was having internal discussions about WhichTo follow its EJ Policy regarding the earlier version of Renovo’s power plant air permit application. However, it concluded that in 2020, after reviewing the permit application in its later version, it was still able to conclude that [t]The project is located in Clinton County. It does not include any areas designated as Environmental Justice Areas.
In spring last year, Clean Air Council and our partners wrote Secretary McDonnell to point out this error. McDonnell stated that DEP was committed to providing meaningful input to the process. He also said that developers had presented an overview of the project in 2016. Residents expressed overwhelming support for the project.
It should not be surprising that people attending a developer presentation, which painted a dirty fossil fuel power plant in the best of light, would support the project. DEP has never spoken directly to residents about the harmful effects of the proposed power plant in the six years the proposal has been discussed in the community. DEP distributed a local fact sheet about the air pollution permitting for this project that failed to mention the types and levels of air pollution that DEP was planning to allow.
According to StateImpact PennsylvaniaThe state plans this year to issue a new policy that would position DEP better as a resource for environmental justice communities. This is what the public also wants. Surveys show that Americans consider environmental justice a pressing issue within their communities. DEP launched a process for gathering public input to strengthen EJ Policy. But the Department must treat this document as more than just suggestions to be forgotten about or ignored.
The Wolf administration’s environmental justice work and DEPs process for improving its environmental justice policy sound great on paper. We will need more than words and rhetoric going forward, considering that DEP didn’t even bother to follow the existing policy in a low income Pennsylvania community. DEP must begin taking concrete steps to address this problem and other environmental injustices throughout Pennsylvania in order to win the public’s trust.
Joseph Otis Minott is the chief counsel and executive director of Clean Air Council.