NEPA Considerations: Environmental Justice and Just Sustainability

If you’ve ever worked on a project with a federal nexus (federal funding, crossing federal lands or expected impacts to air or water regulated by federal law), chances are you’ve addressed Environmental Justice (EJ) through the standard approach. You likely began by asking yourself a number of important questions.

Would the project adversely impact the environmental or human health conditions of minority or low-income communities?

Would it divide a community due to the nature of the project, such as transportation and utility transmission systems?

Could it result in placing a “locally unwanted land use” such as a landfill, a power plant, or a prison inside a community?

Could the project result in greater health effects to low-income or minority communities than to neighboring communities (e.g., air quality, groundwater quality, traffic congestion)?

What perhaps the more-standard approach doesn’t consider is the other key directive in Executive Order 12898: the “provision of [an] existing law that can help ensure that all communities and persons across the Nation live in a safe and healthful environment.”

This is where the Sustainable Communities movement requires a second look when addressing EJ.

How we define EJ issues and where exactly we draw the line? We usually rely on the results of litigation to get clearer direction when it comes to the application of NEPA, but as experts in our field, we have the opportunity to be proactive and further examine the consequences of sustainable projects to determine whether there truly is an equitable distribution of environmental benefits.

At the local level, some communities are adopting Sustainability Plans and effectively incorporating EJ into their plan goals. And though this hasn’t yet occurred at the federal level, we can expect communities surrounding our federal projects to take notice. As we work on sustainability projects, such as renewable energy or mass transit, we should consider whether the project truly represents “just sustainability.” Is it serving the greater community? Is it not biased toward one community over another? Are low-income or minority communities benefiting from these projects, or are they excluded from the benefits as a result of secondary constraints (e.g., light rail stations are too far and can only be accessed by vehicle)?

By taking the time to ask ourselves these questions, we will produce a more defensible NEPA document and come closer to achieving our common goal of just sustainability.