ENVIRONMENT/Environmental justice principle affects growth
Since 1964, environmental justice has played a role in city, county, state and federal building and transportation projects. Rooted in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, environmental justice became a part of the lexicon of the ’80s, primarily in the context of addressing hazardous waste sites, many of which now are referred to as brownfields.
Many of those sites were located in economically depressed areas largely populated by minorities and low-income residents. The principle of environmental justice ensures that projects, such as roadway or building construction, do not have a disproportionate negative impact on those populations. The burden of demonstrating proper application of and adherence to environmental justice principles falls on the government rather than the often-disenfranchised people in the affected area.
Environmental justice has since evolved into a much broader amalgam of laws, regulations and policies, perhaps best crystallized in 1994 by President Clinton’s Executive Order 12898. That order requires all federal agencies to integrate environmental justice in missions that have an environmental component. In addition, environmental justice is now the basis of substantive legal requirements applicable to governmental bodies and planning agencies when undertaking TEA-21 projects.
The interplay between transportation planning and environmental justice concerns can be found in the pending Regional Transportation Plan and accompanying Transportation Improvement Plan for the Atlanta metropolitan area. Together those plans represent an overall investment of approximately $38 billion.
The plan was developed by the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) with the goals of reducing air pollution; providing more practical alternatives to driving; protecting and enhancing the environment; promoting energy conservation; and enhancing job access and mobility of the work force. ARC has made efforts to comply with the requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and focus some attention on environmental justice, but minority groups have criticized its plans as inadequate in that regard.
Critics point out that, while ARC did make some initial efforts to uphold environmental justice, such as categorizing performance standards, it fell short in mapping the concentrations of elderly, poor and minorities in relation to the location of various transportation projects. They note that the plan should have included forecasts of the projects’ effects on the travel patterns and job opportunities of minority populations. However, the computer program used by ARC for modeling traffic demand did not use race as one of the distinguishing factors.
Following those criticisms and the threat of a Clean Air Act lawsuit by a local environmental group, ARC recently revised its plans to better account for environmental justice and transportation equity. Critics also expect that ARC will edit the process by which such plans are developed and refined.
When transportation planners and state and local governments are involved in TEA-21 projects, they must develop procedures that fully account for air quality, emissions inventories and financial capacity, as well as issues that are collateral to their efforts. Of the latter type, environmental justice is one of the most important and, in many cases, the most politically and emotionally charged component of transportation projects. Failure to adequately address it may not only doom the project but cause considerable political and social fallout.
Steve Shi is a partner in the Environmental Practice Group of the Atlanta-based law firm Kilpatrick Stockton.