POLICY PAPER: ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE

By numerous accounts, Maryland is lacking when it comes to having policies on the books that advocate for Environmental Justice (EJ). 

The following are the EJ principles espoused by African American Environmentalist Association:

1) EJ seeks to provide environmental protection to our most vulnerable communities.

2) EJ demands that public policy will protect society’s most vulnerable communities.

3) EJ should provide equal economic opportunities to all sectors of our society while providing equal environmental protection.

4) EJ calls for sustainable development, efficient use of resources and the availability of abundant energy supplies at reasonable prices.

5) EJ requests respect in policy decision-making in order to distribute production facilities that emit contaminates equitably among geographical locations

6) EJ demands that toxic wastes should not be targeted for and concentrated in minority communities.

7) EJ should expand the definition of ‘environment’ and seek to redress unique inner city environmental problems.

8) EJ affirms a commitment to equal environmental protection for all people.

9) EJ should provide compensation to individuals and communities that have suffered disproportionate exposure to pollution.

10) EJ and The Declaration of Independence, hold “that all Men are created equal, that they were endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Environmental protection is an unalienable right.

Assessing Maryland’s Progress

In 2015, the Environmental Law Clinic of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law issued a report to assess Maryland’s progress in achieving environmental justice and to recommend specific steps to advance that goal. 

The report looks at 16 years of progress related to the Maryland Environmental Council on EJ, which had been established by the General Assembly in 1997 to review and report on EJ issues, and which issued a report two years later, in 1999, that identified a litany of concerns about disproportionate environmental burdens in communities of color and low-income communities. Those concerns included lead-paint, ground level ozone, other air pollution from truck exhaust and bus idling, highway placement, noise, traffic, brownfields, landfills, superfund sites, medical waste sites, toxics and toxic dump sites, petroleum facilities, unequal provision of sanitation and waste services, contaminants in fish, pesticide poisoning, and failures to enforce environmental regulations in low-income communities. The report also noted several concerns related to the health effects of disproportionate environmental burdens, including high rates of respiratory illnesses such as asthma and cancer,  outlined further below. 

The most important note from the 2015 report: most of the recommendations from 1999 languished. The Law Clinic stated:

“Maryland should adopt a more systematic and transparent approach to addressing environmental justice issues, including requiring each state agency to develop an environmental justice strategy and regularly report on its progress. The state should also create an Office of Environmental Justice to coordinate and support environmental justice efforts, expand community representation on the Commission on Environmental Justice, and develop new policies to address and prevent environmental injustice.” 

See PP. 11-16 for a further breakdown of the recommendations that the State should implement. 

Snapshot of Health Disparities

  • According to the Environmental Protection Agency, communities of color and low-income communities in the United States are often disproportionately burdened by environmental and public health hazards, and enjoy fewer benefits from environmental programs and natural resources.
  • As of 2017, there were 74 power plants that are currently active in the state of Maryland, according to the Maryland Public Service Commission.
  • People of color and low-income people in Maryland are also more likely to live in close proximity to TRI (toxic releasing) facilities.
  • In 2010, Baltimore City’s rate of asthma-related hospitalizations was almost three times higher than the U.S. average and about 2.2 times higher than the average rate for Maryland. 
  • African Americans in the state are also 1.1 times more likely to suffer from asthma, and 2.3 times more likely to die from asthma, compared to whites.
  • Socioeconomically disadvantaged and African American communities in Maryland bear a disproportionate burden of cancer risk from air toxics exposure.
  • The American Lung Association 2020 “Road to Clean Air” report gives Maryland abysmal grades for smog or ozone pollution, including F’s for both Baltimore and Prince George’s County. 
  • Across Baltimore, the hottest areas tend to be the poorest and that pattern is not unusual.
  •  In dozens of major U.S. cities, low-income neighborhoods are more likely to be hotter than their wealthier counterparts, according to a joint investigation by NPR and the University of Maryland’s Howard Center for Investigative Journalism. Those exposed to that extra heat are often a city’s most vulnerable: the poorest and, disproportionately people of color. 
  • Living day after day in an environment that’s literally hotter isn’t just uncomfortable, it can have dire and sometimes deadly health consequences — a fact we found reflected in Baltimore’s soaring rates of emergency calls when the heat index spiked to dangerous levels. According to a Howard Center analysis of U.S. census data and air temperature data obtained from Portland State University and the Science Museum of Virginia, the hottest neighborhoods in Baltimore can differ by as much as 10 degrees from the coolest.
  • In Baltimore, a 20-year gap in life expectancy exists between the city’s poor, largely African American neighborhoods and its wealthier, whiter areas. A baby born in Cheswolde, in Baltimore’s far-northwest corner, can expect to live until age 87. Nine miles away in Clifton-Berea, near where The Wire was filmed, the life expectancy is 67, roughly the same as that of Rwanda, and 12 years shorter than the American average. 
  • How much pollution you breathe in depends mainly on where you live and how close you are to things like highways or factories. That drives racial disparities, according to a 2019 study that compared consumption and housing patterns across different demographic groups. Discriminatory housing policies like redlining have historically pushed minorities to live in more polluted areas. 
  • Large industries targeted low income neighborhoods and minorities to place hazardous waste sites due to less resistance according to a 2015 study by Paul Mohai of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment and Robin Saha of the University of Montana.

All of these findings underscore disparities EJ campaigners are trying to address.

Background on Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities

There have been many calls for the state’s environmental justice commission to be rechartered, prioritized, and given real authority. 

In 2003, the 20-member Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities was established by statute by the General Assembly, following a 2001 Executive Order by Paris Glendening–one of the recommendations in the aforementioned 1997 Law Clinic report. 

The Commission “analyzes and reviews what impact State laws, regulations, and policy have on the equitable treatment and protection of communities threatened by development or environmental pollution, and determines what areas in the State need immediate attention. Moreover, the Commission assesses the adequacy of statutes to ensure environmental justice, and develops criteria to pinpoint which communities need sustaining. On issues related to environmental justice and sustainable communities, the Commission advises State agencies.“

In September 2020, the commission met for the first time in 8 months, following public criticism by the environmental community that the commission had failed to influence any meaningful policies because of its lack of sufficient representation from affected communities of color and the state’s lack of a real environmental justice plan. They called for the commission to be completely re-chartered. Many state lawmakers were unaware the commission even existed.

Legislation from 2021

In 2021, legislation passed (SB674/HB1207) that would reform Maryland’s environmental justice commission. Sponsored by Del. Tony Bridges (D-Baltimore City) , the bill (1) alters the composition of the commission and provisions governing the appointment of members and the designation of the chair; (2) requires that, to the extent practicable, the membership must reflect the racial, gender, ethnic, and geographic diversity of the State, as specified; (3) requires the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to provide new commission members with a specified orientation; (4) requires CEJSC to meet at least six times per calendar year, requires CEJSC to hold at least four “community listening sessions” per calendar year, and establishes meeting and community listening session requirements, as specified; and (5) alters and expands the required duties of CEJSC.

Identifying EJ Communities

One of the biggest challenges historically has been determining how to best identify environmental justice communities. Notably, some communities oppose being labeled an EJ or “disadvantaged” community due to the impact on property values. 

While the EPA has an EJ screen, the University of Maryland also developed an EJ screening tool just a few years ago to map and visualize distribution of risk factors across sociodemographic groups and identify enviro justice communities. Future policies might use this tool as its guidepost, so it’s good to just be aware of it. 

In August, New Jersey passed groundbreaking EJ legislation that requires its Dept of Environmental Protection to identify the state’s “overburdened communities,” and only grant or renew permits for covered facilities after determining that there are no disproportionate, cumulative environmental impacts on those communities. The first-of-its-kind bill would be an excellent model for Maryland. 

Ben Grumbles told Maryland Matters that he hopes to implement something similar here. 

In June, NC Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order on EJ, specifically tying it to COVID-19 relief efforts. 

HB 1207 requires the Commission to “Develop criteria to assess whether communities in the State may be 18 experiencing environmental justice issues.”

Cumulative Impacts

Maryland has made little progress related to cumulative impacts assessments. Cumulative impacts, according to the EPA, “result when the effects of an action are added to or interact with other effects in a particular place and within a particular time. It is the combination of these effects, and any resulting environmental degradation, that should be the focus of cumulative impact analysis.”

In the United States, there are only 17 state/territory level statutes that mirror NEPA — the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) — which  requires community input in permitting. For 50 years, until the Trump administration rolled it back, NEPA required the government to weigh environmental and community concerns before approving pipelines, highways, drilling permits, new factories or any major action on federal lands. The rollback removes requirements to consider climate change before proceeding on a project. Protocols for weighing concerns from nearby communities — often communities of color — would become far more complex. It also opens the door for more industry involvement in reviewing the environmental impacts of their projects or nixing reviews entirely for some projects that receive little federal funding. Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.), whose constituents have fought a number of projects, called NEPA a critical tool for civil rights.

Of the 17 statutes that mirror NEPA, in only six jurisdictions’ (California, D.C., Hawaii, Massachusetts, Montana, and North Carolina) does the NEPA equivalent include the utilization of cumulative impacts assessments. 

From 2014-2016, cumulative impacts legislation related to permitting fell flat and had “painful deaths,” according to one environmental lobbyist. A proposed bill in 2016 was pared down from more audacious attempts the two years prior. The bill simply said that if you are seeking a new permit, a renewal, or an expanded permit, for one of 4 industries with the highest impacts, then greater communication with affected communities is required regarding diesel tracking to lessen impacts. (For instance, to ensure diesel trucks do not drive past schools at 3pm). Even that was something that didn’t get a vote in the House, and the Senate voted it down.

As written, HB 1207 did not include a reference to cumulative impacts. Environmental groups testified favorable with amendments, asking for the inclusion of language that stated the Commission had to consider: “cumulative impacts, effects, and exposures in the analysis of the impact of current state and local laws, permits, actions and policies on the issue of environmental justice and sustainable communities.” The final language in the bill does include the following: 

USE DATA SETS AND MAPPING TOOLS TO REVIEW and analyze the impact of current State AND LOCAL laws, PERMITS, ACTIONS, and policies on the issue of environmental justice and sustainable communities, INCLUDING CUMULATIVE IMPACTS, EFFECTS, AND EXPOSURE

Federal EJ legislation

Democrats are pushing EJ legislation federally (Environmental Justice for All Act) aimed at addressing environmental inequalities faced by low-income and nonwhite communities. Led by Sens. Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Tammy Duckworth, and Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva and Donald McEachin, the bills would require the government to consider the cumulative effects of certain permitting decisions under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act , meaning they would have to consider how a new permit would interact with existing sources of nearby pollution. 

They would also prohibit discrimination based on disparate impacts, support workers whose communities are transitioning away from fossil fuel-dependent economies, and reinforce parts of, NEPA, which was rolled back by the Trump Administration. 

A Snapshot at Maryland Communities Often Considered EJ Communities

Sparrows Point

To the east of Turner Station, across a wide creek in East Baltimore County, is Sparrows Point, the former site of a massive steel company and industrial complex that, for decades, employed most of Turner Station’s community’s residents. Bethlehem Steel Corporation operated the Sparrows Point Steel Mill in Baltimore for more than 80 years, making iron and steel and building ships. During that time, the facility, located on the roughly 2,300 acre Sparrows Point peninsula, was notorious for violating pollution regulations for air, water, and toxic wastes that fouled local waterways—including Bear Creek, the Patapsco River, and Old Road Bay—and impacted local communities. In the late 1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) sued Bethlehem Steel for numerous hazardous waste violations. There have been seven owners of the Sparrows Point property since 2001 when Bethlehem Steel Corporation, declared bankruptcy. This revolving door of ownership certainly prolonged and complicated the clean-up process.

The old steel mill in Sparrows Point is set to become the first offshore wind staging center for the state. 

Curtis Bay, Cherry Hill, Westport & Other South Baltimore Neighborhoods

Thanks to years of toxic hazards, in 2007 and 2008, Curtis Bay’s zip code ranked first in the entire country for quantity of toxic air pollutants. Currently, it ranks first in Maryland in these pollutants, partly thanks to a medical waste incinerator operated by  Curtis Bay Energy. Asthma hospitalization rates are more than twice the state average in Curtis Bay.  In 2009, Energy Answers International applied to construct a new waste-to-energy (WTE) power plant that would have been located a mile from the Benjamin Franklin High School and the Curtis Bay Elementary School. This plant was permitted to emit 1,000 pounds of lead and 240 pounds of mercury each year, making it one of the largest mercury emitters in the state. After a years-long campaign, students, residents, and advocates successfully defeated Energy Answers’ plan to build the nation’s largest trash-burning incinerator in 2016. Free Your Voice was the group that led this effort and has called for a broader move toward fair development and community control of land in Baltimore. 

BRESCO, Baltimore’s trash incinerator owned by Wheelabrator, currently burns around half of the Baltimore city’s residential waste, or about 174,000 tons annually. The rest of the 700,000 tons burned there every year comes from the city’s commercial waste, which is handled privately or hauled from surrounding counties that have contracts with Wheelabrator.

Burning that trash releases hundreds of thousands of pounds of carbon dioxide every year, as well as toxic chemicals like mercury, lead, and hydrochloric acid, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It also makes BRESCO the city’s single biggest source of nitrogen oxide and a major source of sulfur oxide, both indirect greenhouse gases responsible for smog and acid rain and worsening the climate crisis.

In Westport, where BRESCO is located, residents are 1.4 times as likely to die of lung cancer than the city average. 

Advocates have been working to shut down Bresco for years. 

Brandywine & Important Litigation Impact on EJ

“Over the years, Patuxent Riverkeeper [Fred Tutman] has litigated 19 cases. Twelve of those made it to trial and the organization prevailed in eight of those suits, and grossed nearly a half-billion dollars in judicial penalties, fines and reparations from polluters. One of the victories he is proudest of occurred this year. It resulted in the closing of the Brandywine coal-waste disposal site, rated recently as the seventh worst in the nation in a report by the Environmental Integrity Project, which stated that “ash from three NRG coal plants has contaminated groundwater with unsafe levels of at least eight pollutants, including lithium, at more than 200 times above safe levels, and molybdenum, at more than 100 times higher than safe levels. The contaminated groundwater at this site is now feeding into and polluting local streams.”

Fred filed litigation with community group TB Brandywine Coalition against the PSC and other state agencies, claiming civil rights violations for approving a power plant near Brandywine, where there were already five plants. The complaint cited data from the EPA that found the population within both five and 10 miles of the proposed Mattawoman plant site is 67% black. Through mediation as a result of the litigation, the PSC promulgated regs in August 2020 that require the PSC to have an EJ community liaison whenever a power plant is being considered in any area that meets EJ thresholds. The proposed regs can be found here.

Many local politicians supported the plant, citing union jobs, economic benefits to the community, and the bonus of having Maryland generate its own power as opposed to receiving it from out of state. 

Eagle Point – Prince George’s

“This town has been steeped in a legacy of racism and injustice since its founding,” says Fred Tutman, explaining that in the 1800s part of the town was a steamboat-landing site that transported slaves who worked the Maryland tobacco fields. In the 1920s, when people of color were barred from beaches in the area, black residents from the Washington vicinity formed Eagle Harbor as an enclave and resort. In the 1960s, the massive Chalk Point coal-burning power plant, one of Maryland’s largest, was built just south of Eagle Harbor. The plant is, by far, the leading polluter in Prince George’s County, and has been guilty of numerous unlawful discharges and other violations.

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