Regulatory Developments, Sustainability

EJ Permitting Bill Advances Through PA House

A Pennsylvania House of Representatives committee in June approved H.B. 652, a bill that would require developers of proposed industrial projects in environmental justice (EJ) areas to develop and submit a cumulative impact statement of the projects.

“Environmental racism is a longstanding issue in the commonwealth,” Pennsylvania State Representative Donna Bullock says, according to The Philadelphia Sunday Sun. “Facilities that pollute the environment have been built in burdened communities without their consent because they lacked the influence to stop it. Enough is enough. By empowering the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to deny a permit application if the environmental impacts are found to be too harmful and requiring DEP to consider public testimony, we are putting the power in the hands of the community.”

“Incinerators, landfills, sewage plants — there’s a long history of environmentally harmful facilities like these being built in Pennsylvania’s most marginalized communities, polluting the environment, poisoning the water and lowering property values, disproportionately impacting Black and brown households whose homes are often their own financial asset,” says Pennsylvania State Representative Chris Rabb. “It’s time to substantially combat environmental racism. A clean environment is a constitutional right that is guaranteed to everyone, not just those with the clout to influence decision-makers. This legislation is a step toward honoring and upholding that right.”

H.B. 652 is sponsored by Bullock, Rabb, and fellow State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta.

The bill defines EJ or environmentally burdened communities as a census tract in the bottom third of census tracts in the state for median annual household income.

Opponents of the bill say it’s too burdensome and runs counter to Governor Josh Shapiro’s efforts to improve the state’s permitting process.

“Gov. Shapiro and acting Secretary of DEP Negrin have laid out aggressive proposals to revamp the way permitting is undertaken in Pennsylvania,” said Patrick Henderson, a representative of Marcellus Shale Coalition who spoke at the hearing for the bill, according to PA Environment Digest Blog. “We are optimistic about the stated goals of both the Governor and Secretary, and look forward to the forthcoming details and how they will implement these initiatives.”

As drafted, Henderson identified several issues with the bill:

  • Designation by income: “Using income as a measure of a burdened community, one-third of the U.S. Census tracts in the state would be included in the definition.”
  • Difficult to prepare impacts assessment: “Preparing a Cumulative Impacts Assessment ‘is simply unrealistic as it requires the applicant to have knowledge of information which it could not reasonably possess.’ He cited as an example public health and environmental risks from any pollution emitted or released routinely or accidentally be assessed based on past, present and reasonably foreseeable emissions and discharges.”
  • Community representative: “There is no mechanism for agreeing on one representative of the community– a person or organization– if there is more than one municipality involved. He said the bill—‘could potentially promote a cottage industry where well-funded, well-connected, non-governmental organizations work to become the designated representative from multiple communities across the Commonwealth and utilize that position to oppose or dissuade the permitting of essential facilities that otherwise would meet statutory requirements to be permitted, even in cases where the community at large may support the project.’”

The Philadelphia Sunday Sun says the next step for the bill is to go to the floor for a full House vote.

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