Emma Ehrlich, Carlisle Ghirardini, MJLST Staffer
What is EJScreen?
EJScreen was developed by the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) in 2010, 16 years after President Clinton’s Executive Order 12898 required federal agencies to begin keeping data regarding “environmental and human health risks borne by populations identified by race, national origin or income.” The program has been available to the public through the EPA’s website since 2015 and is a mapping tool that allows users to look at specific geographic locations and set overlays that show national percentiles for categories such as income, people of color, pollution, health disparities, etc. Though the EPA warns that EJScreen is simply a screening tool and has its limits, the EPA uses the program in “[i]nforming outreach and engagement practices, [i]mplementing aspects of …permitting, enforcement, [and] compliance, [d]eveloping retrospective reports of EPA work, [and] [e]nhancing geographically based initiatives.”
As the EPA warns on its website, EJScreen does not contain all pertinent information regarding environmental justice and other data should be collected when studying specific areas. However, EJScreen is still being improved and was updated to EJScreen 2.0 in 2022 to account for more data sets, including data on which areas lack access to food, broadband, and medical services, as well as health disparities such as asthma and life expectancy.
EJScreen software is now being used to evaluate the allocation of federal funding. In February of this year, the EPA announced that it will be allocating $1 billion of funding from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to Superfund cleanup projects such as cleanups of sites containing retired mines, landfills, and processing and manufacturing plants. The EPA said that 60% of new projects are in locations that EJScreen indicated were subject to environmental justice concerns.
EJScreen is also used to evaluate permits. The EPA published its own guidance in August of 2022 to address environmental justice permitting procedures. The guidance encourages states and other recipients of financial assistance from the EPA to use EJScreen as a “starting point” when looking to see if a project whose permit is being considered may conflict with environmental justice goals. The EPA believes this will “make early discussions more meaningful and productive and add predictability and efficiency to the permitting process.” If an early EJScreen brings a project into question, the EPA instructs permitters to consider additional data before making a permitting decision.
Another use of EJScreen is in the review of Title VI Civil Rights Act Complaints. Using the authority provided by Title VI, the EPA has promulgated rules that prohibit any agency or group that is receiving federal funding from the EPA from functioning in a discriminatory way based on race, color, or national origin. The rules also enable people to submit Title VI complaints directly to the EPA when they believe a funding recipient is acting in a discriminatory manner. If it is warranted by the complaint, the EPA will conduct an investigation. Attorneys that have reviewed EPA response letters expressing its decision to conduct an investigation based on a complaint have noted that the EPA often cites EJScreen when explaining why they decided to move forward with an investigation.
In October of 2022, the EPA sent a “Letter of Concern” to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (“LDEQ”) and the Louisiana Department of Health stating that an initial investigation suggests that the two departments have acted in ways that had “disparate adverse impacts on Black residents” when issuing air permits or informing the public of health risks. When discussing a nearby facility’s harmful health effects on residents, the EPA cites data from EJScreen in concluding that the facility is much more likely to have effects on black residents of Louisiana compared to non-black residents. The letter also touches on incorrect uses of EJScreen in saying that LDEQ’s conclusion that a proposed facility would not affect surrounding communities was misleading because the LDEQ used EJScreen to show that there were no residents within a mile of the proposed facility but ignored a school located only 1.02 miles away from the proposed location.
Firms such as Beveridge & Diamond have recognized the usefulness of this technology. They urge industry decision makers to use this free tool, and others similar to it, to preemptively consider environmental justice issues that their permits and projects may face when being reviewed by the EPA or local agencies.
In conclusion, EJScreen has the potential to be a useful tool, especially as the EPA continues to update it with data for additional demographics. However, users of the software should heed EPA’s warning that this is simply a screening tool. It is likely best used to rule out locations for certain projects, rather than be solely relied on for approving projects in certain locations, which requires more recent data to be collected.
Lastly, EJScreen is just one of many environmental justice screening tools being used and developed. Multiple states have been developing their own screening programs, and there is research showing that using state screening software may be more beneficial than national software. An environmental justice screening tool was also developed by the White House Council on Environmental Quality in 2022. Its Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool is meant to assist the government in assigning federal funding to disadvantaged communities. The consensus seems to be that all available screening tools are helpful in at least some way and should be consulted by funding recipients and permit applicants in the early rounds of their decision making processes.