Environmental Justice

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines Environmental Justice as "the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.  EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across this Nation.  It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work."

The concept of environmental justice has been controversial among owners and operators of many private- and public-sector organizations, who point out that they operate their facilities in compliance with environmental permit limits--which are designed to protect human health and the environment--and that they have not intentionally located their facilities in low-income or minority communities.  While this is definitely true in the majority of cases, this argument misses the broader issues encompassed within the environmental justice issue.

Allegations of environmental injustice are typically based on either or both of the following claims:

  • That the emissions of a facility, conditions at an uncontrolled contaminated site, natural resource extraction activities, and the like, either by themselves or in concert with contaminants or emissions from other sources, are imposing a disproportionate burden on area residents.

  • That area residents were not given meaningful access to the decision-making processes regarding the issuing of environmental permits, plans for the cleanup of contaminated sites, and the like.

Disproportionate Impact

EPA's 2004 Guidance, "Toolkit for Assessing Potential Allegations of Environmental Injustice," sets forth a systematic approach to determining whether minority or low-income communities or neighborhoods may be disproportionately burdened by environmental hazards.   Using this approach EPA has demonstrated that some communities are, indeed, overburdened compared with other, reference communities.   This rigorous process, which makes use of both qualitative and quantitative data from a wide variety of sources, provides a good basis for productive discussions on what can be done to reduce adverse environmental impacts on all communities in the U.S., regardless of the race, ethnicity, or income of residents.

As we discuss in the section on U.S. EPA's Plan EJ 2014 (EJ=Environmental Justice) (see link at the top of the page), the Agency is planning to increase air quality monitoring, especially near permitted facilities.  Data from this increased monitoring will provide additional verification of whether specific communities are, in fact, overburdened.

Other documents that describe the process of identifying stakeholders and understanding how best to work with them within specific communities are available for download below.  Additional articles can be downloaded from the "Publications" page of this website.

"Environmental Community Relations: What Can You
Learn About a Community from Reviewing Publicly
Available Documents?"

Demystifying Public Environmental Concerns:
Implementing Community Assessments"

"Variability of Community Attitudes and Behaviors
Relevant to Environmental Issues" (Table)

"Community Assessments: Roadmaps to
Successful Public Involvement" (Conference Paper)

"Communicating Amidst Diversity"
(Early article on Environmental Justice)

Access to Meaningful Public Involvement* in Decision Making

In our experience, claims of environmental injustice are often based on a lack of opportunity for local stakeholders to participate in the decision-making processes surrounding the issuance of  environmental permits or plans for cleaning up contaminated sites.   Many of these claims are, in fact, legitimate.

The typical public noticing process, which advertises the availability of draft permits or draft remediation (cleanup) plans, often don't reach "average" residents.  Thus, unless local officials bring these notices to residents' attention, they have no chance to ask questions or make comments or suggestions about activities that may later affect them.

We use a community and stakeholder assessment process (see downloadable documents listed above) to gain an understanding of our clients' communities to ensure that persons or groups that may potentially be affected or interested in permitting or other activities aren't inadvertantly excluded from the public involvement process.  

In addition to identifying stakeholder groups, the assessment process, which typically includes conducting interviews as well as reviewing and analyzing demographic data and other reports, documents, and information, allows us to identify both potential barriers that stakeholders may face (e.g., political situations that keep certain groups out of decision making processes; lack of English proficiency) and how best to provide stakeholders with information and solicit their input and feedback.

Why are some stakeholder groups excluded from public dialogues on permitting and other environmental issues?  In some cases local officials exclude some classes of stakeholders (e.g., minority, low-income, renters as opposed to homeowners, "new" residents as opposed to the "old guard") out of long-standing political traditions or because they want decisions to go smoothly (e.g., "environmentalists will ask too many questions and may disagree with us"), but we also find that stakeholders are often excluded because decision-makers assume that some groups (e.g., renters, non-English speakers) aren't interested in local environmental issues. 

This can be a costly assumption for the organization seeking the permit if it results in claims of environmental injustice based on lack of meaningful public involvement.  Fortunately, businesses and other organizations seeking permits or engaged in other activities subject to public comment can conduct their own community and stakeholder assessments and, if necessary, take action to ensure full and meaningful public involvement.

While it takes effort to gain a good understanding of a community, its traditions and behaviors, and the people who live within it, the community and stakeholder assessment process not only allows our clients to engage potentially affected or interested  stakeholders in dialogues about environmental issues, the assessment process can also provide the documentation necessary to show that a substantial and good-faith effort to engage potential stakeholders has taken place.

*"Meaningful Involvement" means that: 1. Potentially affected community residents have an appropriate opportunity to participate in decisions about a proposed activity that will affect their environment and/or health; 2. The public's contributions can influence the regulatory agency's decisions; 3. The concerns of all participants involved will be considered in the decision-making process; and 4. The decision makers seek out and facilitate the involvement of those potentiially affected. (From page 3 of U. S. EPA's "Plan EJ 2014.")
U.S. EPA’s “Plan EJ 2014” Spells out Strategies, Illustrates Advances in Identifying and Responding to “Overburdened”* Communities

The U.S. EPA’s recently released Plan EJ 2014 (EJ = Environmental Justice) provides ample insights into the Agency’s vision for assessing and acting upon environmental hazards that may disproportionately affect minority and/or low-income communities.   The plan itself, which is available at http://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/plan-ej/index.html, comprises five “cross-agency” focus areas, including EJ considerations in Rulemaking, Permitting, and Enforcement, and four “tools development” areas.   (An outline of the goals and strategies for the five focus areas appears at the end of this update.) 


The name, Plan EJ 2014, is meant to mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 12898, “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations,” which was signed by former President Clinton on February 11, 1994.    The Plan also recognizes U.S. EPA’s obligation to comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its own civil rights program as well the requirements for public involvement in permitting under 40 CFR Part 25.

While Plan EJ 2014 applies only to U.S. EPA, the Agency intends that the concepts, goals, strategies, and tools it is developing will eventually be implemented by the states, local agencies, Tribal and indigenous people’s agencies, and other federal agencies.

Trends in Addressing Environmental Justice

Plan EJ 2014 confirms several key trends in U.S. EPA’s ongoing efforts to address EJ, including:

  • Compiling data on cumulative risk from both permitted and unpermitted sources and using these data to inform permitting actions, including the setting of permit operating conditions.
  • Exploring increased monitoring, including monitoring requirements in permitting actions.
  • Expanding the inclusion of mitigation and Supplemental Environmental Project (SEP)-like activities into permitting actions in overburdened communities.
  • Increasing public input into SEPs negotiated in settlement of enforcement actions as well as considering options for restitution to the community in criminal enforcement cases.
  • Developing and encouraging the use of quantitative data (e.g., socioeconomic and demographic data as well as data on emissions, permit exceedences, existing contaminated sites, etc.) to identify potentially overburdened communities.  (Other Agency documents, such as the Toolkit for Assessing Potential Allegations of Environmental Injustice, already describe a number of quantitative indicators, ranging from the availability of health care and fresh produce to reliance on subsistence fishing and literacy rates, which can be used to determine: 1) whether a community may face increased vulnerability to environmental hazards, and 2) whether residents may face obstacles to meaningful public involvement in permitting and other such activities.)
  • Considering the distribution of both the environmental burdens and benefits of EPA’s past and present actions.
  • Empowering communities and community groups by providing information, permit pre-application meetings, technical assistance, and the like to promote meaningful public involvement.

*In Plan EJ 2014, the term “overburdened” is used to describe “the minority, low-income, tribal, and indigenous populations or communities in the United States that potentially experience disproportionate environmental harms and risks as a result of greater vulnerability to environmental hazards.  This increased vulnerability may be attributable to an accumulation of both negative and lack of positive environmental, health, economic, or social conditions within these populations or communities.” (Page 1, Plan EJ 2014)

Who Should Care About Environmental Justice?

Many professionals view environmental justice as an ethereal concept that can’t be quantified.  In fact, substantial work has been done to identify socioeconomic, geographic, cultural, biological, and other variables that can lead to increased risk from environmental hazards.  Both quantitative and qualitative methods can be used to assess whether communities are overburdened and to identify obstacles that could discourage or prevent stakeholder groups from participating in community decision-making processes.

Possessing such information allows community relations/public involvement specialists, such as Rose Hill Communications’ consultants, to design public involvement programs that encourage affected or interested parties to participate in decision-making processes and provide opportunities for them to do so. 

Plan EJ 2014 signals U.S. EPA’s intent to use these existing tools and to fine-tune and develop additional tools to identify overburdened populations and promote meaningful public involvement.

Of Importance to Our Clients

Particularly at the facility level, our community relations/public involvement clients are likely to be most affected by EJ concerns related to permitting activities and enforcement actions.  In regard to permitting, U.S. EPA states that it is working on developing tools to “enable overburdened communities to have full and meaningful access to the permitting process,” and to “develop permits that address environmental justice issues to the greatest extent practicable.”  

The Plan also states that U.S. EPA is currently using—and will continue to use—EJ considerations when developing the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance’s “program strategies, case targeting strategies, and development of remedies of enforcement actions to benefit overburdened communities.”

For the last two decades, Rose Hill Communications has employed many of the quantitative and qualitative tools that EPA uses to identify and analyze the characteristics of communities and the stakeholders who reside within them.  Our community and stakeholder assessments allow our clients to demonstrate that they have identified both potentially overburdened stakeholders and those public involvement and outreach activities that can be used to effectively engage interested or affected residents.

Plan EJ 2014 Overview (Excerpted from Document)

Plan EJ 2014 is EPA’s “overarching strategy for advancing environmental justice.  It seeks to:

  • Protect the environment and health in overburdened communities.
  • Empower communities to take action to improve their health and environment.
  • Establish partnerships with local, state, tribal, and federal governments and organizations to achieve healthy and sustainable communities.”

The Plan comprises five Cross-Agency Focus Areas and four Tools Development Areas.

Cross-Agency Focus Areas

Incorporating Environmental Justice into Rulemaking

Goal—To more effectively protect human health and the environment for overburdened populations by developing and implementing guidance on incorporating environmental justice into EPA’s rulemaking process.


  • Finalize the Interim Guidance on Considering Environmental Justice During the Development of an Action.
  • Facilitate and monitor implementation of guidance on incorporating environmental justice into rulemaking.
  • Develop technical guidance on how to conduct environmental justice assessments of rulemaking activities.

Considering Environmental Justice in Permitting

Goal—To enable overburdened communities to have full and meaningful access to the permitting process and to develop permits that address environmental justice issues to the greatest extent practicable under existing environmental laws.


  • Develop tools that will enhance the ability of overburdened communities to participate fully and meaningfully in the permitting process.
  • Concurrent with Strategy 1, develop tools to assist permitting authorities to meaningfully address environmental justice in permitting decisions.
  • Implement these tools at EPA and work with others to do the same.

Advancing Environmental Justice through Compliance and Enforcement

Goal—To fully integrate consideration of environmental justice concerns into the planning and implementation of the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance’s (OECA) program strategies, case targeting strategies, and development of remedies in enforcement actions to benefit overburdened communities.


  • Advance environmental justice goals through selection and implementation of National Enforcement Initiatives.
  • Advance environmental justice goals through targeting and development of compliance and enforcement actions.
  • Enhance use of enforcement and compliance tools to advance environmental justice goals in the regional geographic initiatives to address the needs of overburdened communities.
  • Seek appropriate remedies in enforcement actions to benefit overburdened communities and address environmental justice concerns.
  • Enhance communication with affected communities and the public regarding environmental justice concerns and the distribution and benefits of enforcement actions, as appropriate.

Supporting Community-Based Action Programs

Goal—To strengthen community-based programs to engage overburdened communities and build partnerships that promote healthy, sustainable, and green communities.


  • Advance environmental justice principles by building strong state and tribal partnerships through the National Environmental Performance Partnership System (NEPPS) and the National Program Manager (NPM) guidance.
  • Identify scalable and replicable elements of successful Agency community-based programs and align multiple EPA programs to more fully address the needs of overburdened communities.
  • Promote an integrated One EPA presence to better engage communities in the Agency’s work to protect human health and the environment.
  • Foster community-based programs modeled on the Community Action for a Renewed Environmental (CARE) principles.
  • Explore how EPA funding, policies, and programs can inform or help decision makers to maximize benefits and minimize adverse impacts when considering current land uses in decision making, planning, siting, and permitting.
  • Promote equitable development opportunities for all communities.

Fostering Administration-Wide Action on Environmental Justice

Goal—To facilitate the active involvement of all federal agencies in implementing Executive Order 12898 by minimizing and mitigating disproportionate, negative impacts while fostering environmental, public health, and economic benefits for overburdened communities.


  • Assist other federal agencies in integrating environmental justice in their programs, policies, and activities.
  • Work with other federal agencies to strengthen use of interagency legal tools, i.e., National Environmental Policy Act and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
  • Foster healthy and sustainable communities, with an emphasis on equitable development and place-based initiatives.
  • Strengthen community access to federal agencies.

This page is still under construction.  We will be adding links that will allow you to jump to the sections you wish to view, but for now, please scroll down to view sections and downloadable documents.

Downloadable documents available by scrolling down:
  • Comments on "Best Practices" in community outreach by permit applicants recently submitted to EPA.
  • Summary on "Indicators" that EPA is using/considering for use to identify environmental justice communities and populations.
  • Summary of Plan EJ 2014.

Additional documents on the community assessment process are available for download by scrolling down the page.

NEW--Posted 08/27/12

Comments on "EPA Activities to Promote Environmental Justice in the Permit Application Process, Appendix--Best Practices for Permit Applicants Seeking EPA-Issued Permits: Ways to Engage Communities at the Fence-Line (Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OAR-2012-0452)

Following is a downloadable copy of the comments Carol J. Forrest of Rose Hill Communications, Inc. filed with the U.S. EPA in regard to the June 26, 2012 , Federal Register Notice, "EPA Activities to Promote Environmental Justice in the Permit Application Process, Appendix--Best Practices for Permit Applicants Seeking EPA-Issued Permits: Ways to Engage Communities at the Fence-Line."

These comments address what our experience has shown us about the need--especially in cases involving the potential for environmental injustice--to understand the way communities "work," to identify all potential stakeholders, and to understand how stakeholders interact within the community.  This knowledge is necessary to the effective design and implementation of  both voluntary community outreach activities by permit applicants AND to the more formal stakeholder engagement programs used by government agencies seeking to achieve "meaningful involvement" under Plan EJ 2014.

The process of gathering and analyzing detailed and well-supported information regarding communities and the stakeholders within them is called "community and stakeholder assessment" or "community assessment."

The Community Assessment Process, "Best Practices," and EJ "Indicators"

The assessment process that we have developed over the past two decades is not only the key to the effective design and implementation of "Best Practices" for community outreach by permit applicants, it also uses an "Indicators" approach to analyze communities and stakeholders that is similar to those being developed and used by EPA and other state and federal agencies.

The "Indicators" that EPA has developed for assessing "Environmental" and "Health" effects on communities and populations can provide highly useful data.  However, we believe that our community assessment model provides an "Indicators" template that is considerably more useful than the "Indicators" currently used by EPA to gather and analyze "Social" (and to some extent, "Economic") characteristics within a community or neighborhood.  These "Indicators provide information on factors that can enhance or obstruct stakeholders' ability to engage in the type of "meaningful involvement" required under EPA's Plan EJ 2014. 

In addition to explaining how the assessment process works, the comments cover:

  • Reasons why facility managers may not be as well-acquainted with their communities is they think they are.

  • Three brief case studies demonstrating how the assessment process is used to cross-check and verify information about a community and develop and accept or reject initial hypotheses of how the community and the stakeholders within it interact (or not).

  • The business case for conducting a thorough community assessment in advance of permitting activities.

  • Using demographic data to identify potentially marginalized or excluded stakeholders.  This discussion includes using "length of time in residence" data to identify the likelihood of "new" residents who may not be clipped in to traditional communication channels within the community.

  • Identifying the geographic extent of potential concern about a permitting action, including community attitudes toward attempts by "outsiders" to engage in decision-making dialogues.

  • Identifying and understanding the ramifications to stakeholder engagement of community social and political structure.

  • Recognizing community behavior patterns.

The comments also include other, detailed observations on the "best practices" that can be used by permit applicants discussed by EPA in the June 26 Federal Register notice, including:

  • Who should communicate with the public?

  • Working with outspoken or difficult stakeholders.

  • Enlisting stakeholders to speak on permit applicant's behalf: Be careful!

  • Considerations in the use of surveys and questionnaires, including non-response bias and other pitfalls.

  • Considerations in the use of Community Advisory Panels and other advisory groups, including the use of temporary advisory groups and misuse of Community Advisory Panels.

  • Considerations in the use of the Internet to provide information  to the public and as a forum for discussion, including pitfalls such as lack of availability to the Internet among some stakeholder groups.

To Download the Comments, click on the icon shown below:

Several additional documents describing the community assessment process are available for download further down this page.

Environmental Justice "Indicators" Downloadable
Summary Document

This summary consists of excerpts taken directly from the The U.S. EPA document, "Toolkit for Assessing Potential Allegations of Environmental Injustice," along with some of our own suggestions and commentary.  Since the original Toolkit was published in 2004, we have also updated some of the data sources.   Persons who are interested in performing their own assessments should consult the complete Toolkit document, which is available at www.epa.gov (search on "environmental justice toolkit").

A downloadable DRAFT of the "Indicators" EPA uses that includes sources of data:

Plan EJ 2014 Summary Downloadable Document

Additional information on Plan EJ 2014 is available by scrolling further down this page.   However, a nine-page summary is available for download here:

Other Information Available on this Page Includes:

  • Overview of Environmental Justice
  • A list of downloadable documents on the Community and Stakeholder Assessment process
  • An Overview of EPA's recently released Plan EJ 2014

We always appreciate feedback and we intend to provide additional resource materials--and links to materials--on this important topic.  Please let us know if you would like to see specific items (or types of items) covered on this page.