Charles Lee: Charting a Path Forward for Environmental Justice

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Over the past few years, considerable energy has been devoted toward advancing environmental justice (EJ) at the state level. State agencies can be robust laboratories for experimenting with ways to advance EJ, as they’re often tasked with making decisions under state and federal environmental law. As EJ pioneer Charles Lee explains in the March issue of ELR—The Environmental Law Reporter, state lessons can cross-fertilize and inform work at other levels of government, and the role of nongovernmental players is also critical to driving transformative change. Lee believes it is essential that those working to advance EJ systemically expand their discourse.smokestack sunset

In A Game Changer in the Making? Lessons From States Advancing Environmental Justice Through Mapping and Cumulative Impact Statements, Lee looks at the development, use, and impact of two mapping tools: the California Environmental Protection Agency’s CalEnviroScreen and EPA’s EJSCREEN.

Based on his experience and findings, Lee offers five key lessons for EJ practitioners, including advocates, researchers, policymakers, funders and staff from community and advocacy organizations, academia, and government, seeking to advance work in their own states:

(1)    Addressing cumulative impacts is a core strategy for advancing environmental justice, and this is embodied in EJ mapping tool development.
(2)    Guiding principles for successfully developing an EJ mapping tool can be articulated.
(3)    EJ mapping tools can help facilitate resource investment to promote health and sustainability in environmentally overburdened and disadvantaged communities.
(4)    Emerging EJ mapping efforts provide a useful, straightforward, and replicable model that future EJ mapping development at the state and local government levels can emulate.
(5)    Progress in advancing EJ at the state level, including EJ mapping tool development, has come from the combined efforts of communities, academia, and government.

The current discourse on EJ mapping tools is extremely critical because identifying and prioritizing environmentally burdened and vulnerable communities is a fundamental first step toward integrating EJ into decisionmaking. EJ mapping also holds the potential to more precisely characterize and operationalize the concept of disproportionate impacts, which is a particularly vexing conundrum for EJ practitioners.

With many states and others across the country taking EJSCREEN and CalEnviroScreen methodologies and seeking to apply them, we are, Lee suggests, witnessing the emergence of yet another “true game changer” for advancing EJ in the United States.

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