Environmental Justice:

EPA Needs to Take Additional Actions to Help Ensure Effective Implementation

GAO-12-77: Published: Oct 6, 2011. Publicly Released: Nov 7, 2011.

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for promoting environmental justice--that is, the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people in developing, implementing, and enforcing environmental laws, regulations, and policies. In January 2010, the EPA Administrator cited environmental justice as a top priority for the agency. GAO was asked to examine (1) how EPA is implementing its environmental justice efforts, and (2) the extent that EPA has followed leading federal strategic planning practices in establishing a framework for these efforts. To conduct this work, GAO reviewed EPA strategy documents and interviewed agency officials and key stakeholders.

In recent years, EPA has renewed its efforts to make environmental justice an important part of its mission by developing a new strategy and approach for integrating environmental justice considerations into the agency's programs, policies, and activities. Under Plan EJ 2014, the agency's 4-year environmental justice implementation plan, EPA's program and regional offices are assuming principal responsibility for integrating the agency's efforts by carrying out nine implementation plans to put Plan EJ 2014 into practice. An important aspect of Plan EJ 2014 is to obtain input on major agency environmental justice initiatives from key stakeholders, including the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice, impacted communities, and states. In developing its environmental justice framework, which consists of agency initiatives, including Plan EJ 2014 and the implementation plans, EPA generally followed most of the six leading federal strategic planning practices that we selected for review. For example, EPA has generally defined a mission and goals for its environmental justice efforts, ensured leadership involvement and accountability for these efforts, and coordinated with other federal agencies--all consistent with leading practices in federal strategic planning. However, EPA has not yet fully (1) established a clear strategy for how it will define key environmental justice terms or identified the resources it may need to carry out its environmental justice implementation plans, (2) articulated clearly states' roles in ongoing planning and environmental justice integration efforts, or (3) developed performance measures for eight of its nine implementation plans to track agency progress on its environmental justice goals. Without additional progress on these practices, EPA cannot assure itself, its stakeholders, and the public that it has established a framework to effectively guide and assess its efforts to integrate environmental justice across the agency. GAO is recommending that EPA develop a clear strategy to define key environmental justice terms; conduct a resource assessment; articulate clearly states' roles in ongoing planning and future implementation efforts; and develop performance measures to track the agency's progress in meeting its environmental justice goals. GAO provided a draft of this report to EPA for comment. EPA disagreed with two of GAO's recommendations, partially agreed with one recommendation, and did not directly address the remaining recommendation. GAO believes that the recommended actions will help EPA ensure clear, consistent, and measurable progress as it moves forward in implementing Plan EJ 2014.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA did not concur with this recommendation. However, they agreed with GAO regarding the need for greater consistency in how potential communities with environmental justice concerns are identified. EPA released a working prototype of EJSCREEN internally in the Spring of fiscal year 2012.

    Recommendation: To ensure that EPA continues to make progress toward the effective integration of environmental justice considerations into the agency's programs, policies, and activities, the Administrator of EPA should direct the appropriate offices to develop a clear strategy to define key environmental justice terms in order to help the agency establish a consistent and transparent approach for identifying potential communities with environmental justice concerns.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: EPA did not concur with this recommendation. EPA has instituted an Agency-wide management system to ensure implementation of Plan EJ 2014 and to conduct a separate assessment at this time would divert resources from our work unnecessarily. EPA holds each of its national and regional program managers responsible for implementation of Plan EJ 2014. EPA committed to proactively monitor progress in meeting milestones and delivering products identified in each of the Plan EJ 2014 implementation plans. We also made a commitment to issue annual progress reports and conduct a review to update the implementation plans to reflect changing priorities and needs. To monitor the Agency's progress in meeting milestones and commitments outlined in Plan EJ 2014 implementation plans, EPA conducted progress reviews for each of the implementation plans with national program and regional offices in spring of 2012. The Agency has continued to monitor their progress through ongoing monthly Environmental Justice Committee meetings with senior national program and regional managers, quarterly meetings with each national program, and periodic briefings for senior Agency leadership. EPA also provides briefings for the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, EPA?s federal advisory committee on EJ, on Plan EJ 2014 areas at each of its meetings. These briefings are open to the public and associated materials also are publicly available. EPA has also issued two progress reports on Plan EJ 2014, one in February 2013 and the second February 2014.

    Recommendation: To ensure that EPA continues to make progress toward the effective integration of environmental justice considerations into the agency's programs, policies, and activities, the Administrator of EPA should direct the appropriate offices to conduct an assessment of the resources needed under its current plans to integrate environmental justice considerations throughout the agency to help ensure that EPA's staffing and funding resources are sufficient to meet current environmental justice goals and future changes in workload, such as provision of training to support use of key tools and guidance and potential changes in funding levels.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: EPA concurred with this recommendation. EPA committed to continue incorporating state perspectives regarding their areas of interest and to engage states regarding their roles and responsibilities. Since February 2012, EPA has engaged states on various aspects of Plan EJ 2014 in an ongoing manner. For example, EPA conducted several special briefings on Plan EJ 2014 for ECOS in 2012. EPA has made engagement with states an important part of the development of its efforts to incorporate EJ in the permitting process because of its great interest to states. EPA conducted meetings and conference calls with ECOS and various trade associations during the formulation of its EJ and Permitting Implementation Plan last year. EPA sought input on its first set of proposed actions, published in the Federal Register, to enhance public participation in the permitting process. From this engagement, EPA has learned that state agencies have a rich body of experience on EJ and permitting. EPA has incorporated the states' best practices into EPA's own strategies. EPA looks forward to engaging states in more and more substantive ways in the future. EPA has taken the position that it needs to lead by example to address EJ issues. As EPA gains lessons from this experience, it will share them with states. In addition, EPA will engage states to help them prepare for the public rollout of EJSCREEN.

    Recommendation: To ensure that EPA continues to make progress toward the effective integration of environmental justice considerations into the agency's programs, policies, and activities, the Administrator of EPA should direct the appropriate offices to articulate clearly in its plans the roles and responsibilities of states and continue recently initiated outreach efforts to help ensure that states are meaningfully involved in ongoing environmental justice planning and the subsequent implementation of Plan EJ 2014.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: EPA concurred with this recommendation. The Agency made several commitments as part of its response to this recommendation: 1) Work to enhance both the FY2013 NPM Guidance and FY 2014 Annual Planning and Budget process in 2012, 2) Work with national programs and regions to include qualitative expectations for incorporating EJ into program initiatives and program activities in each of the national program managers FY 2013 NPM Guidance Processes, 3) Develop EJ annual performance measures (with targets) for inclusion in the FY 2014 budget submission for each of the national programs and 4) Continue monitoring progress of Plan EJ 2014 through the use of milestones and deliverables and will consider performance measures as key Plan EJ 2014 guidance and tools undergo final agency review. (1 - 2) On track. EPA made progress integrating Plan EJ 2014 commitments into the FY 2013 NPM Guidance and outlining qualitative expectations for incorporating EJ into program initiatives and program activities. Electronic copies of the FY 2013 NPM guidance documents are available at: http://www.epa.gov/planandbudget/annualplan/fy2013.html . (3) Progress has slowed in our efforts to develop annual performance measures (with targets) for inclusion in the FY 2014 budget due to financial uncertainty for upcoming fiscal years. In the meantime efforts continue to pilot approaches for developing performance measures that can be used for budgetary purposes. (4) Complete. EPA is monitoring progress of Plan EJ 2014 as outlined in the update to recommendation #2 EPA is identifying performance measures for key Plan EJ 2014 deliverables as they are produced and made available. For example, EPA has set a target of collecting 50 examples of the use of the EJ legal tools document by the end of FY2013. EPA's final report on the Agency?s progress on Plan EJ 2014 activities was released February 2014. The Agency will continue to make progress on this issue in the next phase of Plan EJ 2014.

    Recommendation: To ensure that EPA continues to make progress toward the effective integration of environmental justice considerations into the agency's programs, policies, and activities, the Administrator of EPA should direct the appropriate offices to develop performance measures for Plan EJ 2014 to provide EPA managers with the information necessary to assess how effectively the agency is performing relative to its environmental justice goals and the effect of its overall environmental justice efforts on intended communities.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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