Balancing People and Project Impacts Through Environmental Justice

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Executive Order 14008 have elevated environmental justice concerns in government and public consciousness. Integrating this approach into infrastructure projects can be confusing due to a lack of clear regulatory guidelines. By developing plans that adhere to EPA’s standard of “fair treatment and meaningful involvement,” project administrators can satisfy regulators while addressing the concerns of residents.

Approximately 125 years ago, Jewish immigrants arrived in Nassau County, New York, establishing their own cultural enclave. Working as tailors, farmers and factory workers, this close-knit community put down roots across Long Island. After World War II, a suburban boom spread across the U.S. and Nassau County was no exception. Subsequent generations built modern synagogues and schools, firmly cementing Long Island as the fourth-largest Jewish community outside of New York City, Los Angeles and southern Florida.

As the community grew, so did the need to maintain reliable power. A new transmission line, slated in 2020 to run right through the heart of the sprawling Jewish neighborhood, prompted numerous questions and candid conversations. With three synagogues, two rabbinical schools and a volunteer ambulance service run by the Orthodox Jewish community located near proposed construction sites, concerns arose about potential disruptions to Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, and other cultural traditions.

Conversations with project staff, city staff and local residents proved fruitful. While English was the predominant language among residents, community forums necessitated Russian, Ukrainian, Hungarian and Hebrew translators for first- and second-generation immigrants. Honest conversations and regular project updates helped shape project execution and scope. Once work began, the construction team only worked evenings and avoided Saturdays to recognize Shabbat.

The communication strategy and outreach efforts orchestrated for this project demonstrate the intentional engagement championed by environmental justice, leading to a streamlined project execution.

“In the past, the standard public engagement process focused on sending out letters to inform people that a project was underway,” says Drew McMullin, associate public involvement specialist at Burns & McDonnell. “Under the new rules, the federal government, and many state governments with environmental justice laws, are expecting robust engagement in a community's home language, talking face-to-face with community members so they can provide feedback.”

For decades, environmental justice has waxed and waned as a viable approach to guide infrastructure, environmental, commercial and social endeavors. With the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and issuance of Executive Order 14008, this approach has become a centerpiece for grant funding, infrastructure projects, remediation efforts and community development.

While environmental justice has recently gained prominence in the public consciousness, its history dates back to the 1980s when polychlorinated biphenyls were dumped into the soil of a predominantly Black neighborhood in North Carolina, igniting public outcry that led to 500 arrests. Subsequently, President George H.W. Bush created an Environmental Equity Working Group to develop solutions in coordination with civic leaders. In 1994, President Bill Clinton issued an executive order directing federal agencies to prioritize environmental justice, specifically focusing on the environmental and health conditions of low-income and minority populations. Similarly, in 2011, a consortium of 16 federal agencies signed a memorandum of understanding to address environmental justice in relevant regulations and government programs.

Since the passage of the IIJA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has disseminated bulletins explaining that federally permitted projects would face additional scrutiny to comply with environmental justice considerations. While this creates opportunities to include the voices of impacted community members, this process has created confusion because there are no clear regulatory guidelines to meet EPA’s standard of “fair treatment and meaningful involvement.” This has raised questions about how to approach environmental justice for new infrastructure projects, as well as remediation efforts.

While EPA provides guidance to address environmental justice concerns, McMullin has created a checklist of concrete steps asset managers and infrastructure project administrators can take to address environmental and cultural priorities while engaging with the public. Before any shovels hit the ground, McMullin uses the following steps to outline the engagement strategy:

  • Define project scope.
  • Gather data.
  • Evaluate impacts.
  • Produce findings.
  • Create an engagement plan.
  • Manage the plan.
  • Measure and report.
  • Adjust the plan as needed.

To implement a successful engagement strategy, McMullin advises project teams to start with a synergistic approach. Asset managers and operators, state and local government administrators, utility administrators, and engineers should collaborate and identify the project vision and benchmarks for success to define the project scope.

“Defining and analyzing environmental justice is difficult and there aren’t necessarily universal guidelines among federal and state agencies,” says Shari Cannon-Mackey, associate environmental planner and senior project manager at Burns & McDonnell. “My guidance is to stick with the definitions created by the Council on Environmental Quality, current executive orders and EPA.”

The next steps include gathering data, conducting an analysis and sharing these findings. These steps can be challenging and tedious, but the White House Council on Environmental Quality unveiled a new climate and economic justice screening tool in February 2022. This tool builds off EPA’s EJScreen, a similar tool that shows demographic and environmental information for a specified area. The original EJScreen was created in 2010 and became available to the public in 2015. This tool was used to identify disadvantaged communities contending with legacy environmental pollution. It was considered a baseline screening tool and EPA recommended supplementing with local information.

The new tool incorporates data regarding the availability of medical services, broadband internet and food. The climate and economic justice screening tool also uses health equity data and new environmental indicators. Health equity data includes life expectancy, as well as rates of asthma and heart disease. For environmental indicators, the tool uses new drought and wildfire data, and underground storage tank indicators.

For developers, municipal and state agencies, and asset owners, this tool isn’t just about assessing how to engage with a specific community to meet its needs. President Joe Biden's Executive Order 14008 created the Justice40 Initiative, which aims to deliver 40% of applicable federal investments into communities with marginalized populations, especially communities contending with high levels of pollution. For a municipal or state organization, the climate and economic justice screening tool can pinpoint neighborhoods and communities that would likely qualify for grant funding. Also, the tool can help developers identify project sites that align with environmental justice considerations.

While all of these tools and resources are helpful to identify potential sites and funding opportunities, federally permitted projects must still contend with heightened scrutiny to meet EPA’s standard of “meaningful involvement.”

“It’s really important to have project staff on-site to help identify what we would consider community facilities — libraries, schools, hospitals, churches and cemeteries, as well as federal and tribal lands — so we know the proximity of the project site and we can mitigate potential adverse impacts,” Cannon-Mackey says. “Environmental justice can add complexity to your project, especially when you are building in a neighborhood where everyone rents or English is a second language, but we want residents to understand that even if it takes years to implement a project, we still value their opinion.”

While environmental justice guidelines and policies create additional scrutiny for new development and infrastructure projects, these efforts also foster collaboration and open communication to reach mutually beneficial solutions. In Nassau County, project staff coordinated more than 200 community forums to engage with the city staff and residents. The intentional community engagement led to a collaborative process that was not only appreciated by the local community but lauded by the New York Department of Public Service. Based on his firsthand experience, McMullin understands that the public wants and expects a seat at the table.

“Putting together a communications plan is an essential component of environmental justice efforts, because you are working in tandem with the public and helping them get through the change process,” he says. “When you talk to people and you help mitigate their issues, they’re not going to show up with pitchforks and torches to stop the project.”

Thought Leaders

Shari Cannon-Mackey

Project Manager

Drew McMullin

Associate Public Involvement Specialist