Environmental Injustice at the EPA

This past week, the EPA’s science advisory board held a public hearing on efforts to measure the “environmental justice” (EJ) impacts of EPA rules. EJ refers to adverse human health and environmental effects of government policies on minority and low income populations in the US. The EPA has released draft guidance to agency analysts who measure these effects, and this hearing was intended to find ways to improve the guidance before it is finalized.

While holding a public hearing is a sign that the EPA is committed to getting this issue right, significant improvements need to be made to the EJ guidance if the EPA does not want the entire EJ project to backfire. Specifically, closer attention should be paid to the costs EPA rules impose on low income and minority populations. Further, improvements in the transparency of agency procedures will help ensure that those with modest incomes are allowed to participate in decisions that will have significant impacts on their health and well-being.

Currently, the EPA is focusing far more on the benefits of its rules to low income and minority groups than on the costs. As evidence, the 81-page draft guidance document contains only two pages related to costs of EPA regulations. In those two pages, the agency argues that costs are often not relevant to environmental justice issues, saying:

Consideration of the distribution of costs in the context of EJ is not always necessary. Often the costs of regulation are passed onto consumers as higher prices that are spread fairly evenly across many households.

This is a striking statement because regulatory costs are regressive exactly in the instances that the EPA describes in this statement. Any time costs of a policy are spread evenly across all citizens, the dollar amount paid to implement a regulation consumes a larger percentage of a poor person’s income than a wealthy person’s income. This is precisely why sales taxes are regressive.

Additionally, as incomes fall due to the costs imposed on citizens complying with regulations, people have fewer resources available to use toward risk reduction and outlays related to improving health. Meanwhile, there is evidence that private risk reduction can be much more effective than public methods of risk reduction, especially when regulations are addressing very small risks that are dwarfed by the other risks individuals face in their everyday lives.

A step in the right direction would be to ask analysts to identify the distribution of costs of EPA regulations, especially for rules that increase the prices of products that EJ populations purchase (e.g. rent, fuel, food, electricity).

Another important component of EJ is to gather meaningful feedback from low income and minority persons before implementing policies. The notice announcing last week’s public hearing was published in the Federal Register on Christmas Eve, making it unlikely that many in the EJ community, especially those with little political influence and low alertness to EPA actions, will even be aware this hearing is taking place, let alone will participate in the event.

If the EPA’s science advisory board is truly committed to improving the lot of the less well-off, it should tell the EPA to do more to measure the costs of environmental rules on low income and minority persons, and to improve transparency of agency procedures so those with less political clout can participate equally in the democratic process.