What do new environmental justice orders mean for waste?

On Jan. 27, President Biden signed a series of executive orders focused on mitigating climate change, building infrastructure and promoting environmental justice.

As part of the orders, the president directed federal agencies to “develop programs, policies and activities to address the disproportionate health, environmental, economic and climate impacts on disadvantaged communities.”

To enforce these directives, a new White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council and a White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council have been formed to prioritize environmental justice and ensure a “whole-of-government approach” to addressing environmental injustices and promoting better monitoring and enforcement in these areas. New or bolstered offices at the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Justice, and the Department of Health and Human Services have been created to aid in these efforts.

The orders also established the Justice40 Initiative, through which government institutions have the goal of delivering 40 percent of benefits of federal investments to disadvantaged communities. President Biden also announced the development of a Climate and Environmental Justice Screening Tool that will be used to identify disadvantaged communities and “inform equitable decision-making across the federal government.”

At the heart of these policies is the desire to take the burden of housing facilities like landfills, factories, power plants, waste incineration and wastewater treatment plants away from “fenceline communities” populated by minorities.

“It’s hard,” President Biden said, discussing the disproportionate number of these facilities that are built and run in areas of the country where brown, black, Native American and poor whites reside. “That’s why we’re going to work to make sure that they receive 40 percent of the benefits of key federal investments in clean energy, clean water and wastewater infrastructure.”

Operators know the difficulties of siting, permitting and running waste facilities all too well. And while regulation and red tape already pose significant challenges for those overseeing these sites, it is safe to say the industry will be keeping a close eye on how these new provisions might further exacerbate compliance issues. NIMBY (not in my back yard) is a sentiment waste industry stakeholders are used to dealing with in the communities in which they operate. What will the fallout be if government-mandated intervention brings about a new acronym: NITBY (not in their back yard)?

Of course, it will take time before the specifics and ramifications of President Biden’s orders are understood; however, it would seem an obvious result will be that the responsibility of being a good neighbor will be thrust onto the shoulders of operators over the next four-plus years—even more than it already is.

Can the industry overcome additional compliance and regulatory hurdles by more thoughtful design, greater community engagement, an embrace of innovation and technology, and more proactive emissions testing?

However these orders are interpreted and enforced, it is a good bet that the companies that are able to lay out their plans for equitable and safe waste operations (and show a track record of doing so) are the ones that are going to be the beneficiaries of new government policy.

January February 2021
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