On Thursday October 28, 2021, Pennsylvania Governor Thomas Wolf signed an Executive Order that will strengthen environmental justice work in Pennsylvania. Members of the Pennsylvania Black Caucus also announced legislation they are putting forth to accompany this executive order. These actions are important first steps to protect communities overburdened with environmental exposures. The maps below show the many environmental justice communities in Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia County, almost entirely an environmental justice community.
The executive order establishes the Office of Environmental justice (OEJ) in the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), an Environmental Justice Advisory Board (EJAB), and an Environmental Justice Interagency Council (EJIC). The OEJ, EJAB, and EJIC will work together with other stakeholders to revise EJ Policy on cumulative environmental impacts, enhanced public participation plans for EJ areas, and enhanced environmental impacts consideration in the permitting process. This will give the DEP the power to deny a permit application if it finds that the impacts of the facility on the community would be too great to justify its approval.
We expect this executive order and legislation once passed to prevent new industrial development that would add additional pollution and health risk to already overburdened EJ communities in PA. For example, Chester, a small city just south of Philadelphia, that is 74% Black with 33% of the population living below the poverty line, is home to an unprecedented number of industrial polluting facilities. There are 11 industries that emit carcinogens in Chester; some emitting tens of thousands of pounds of carcinogens every year. They include a trash incinerator, a sewage treatment plant, oil refineries, and more. With this new executive order, the DEP has the power to deny permits to facilities that would increase the burden of pollution in Chester.
In Philadelphia, EJ communities are exposed to lead from lead paint in dilapidated housing, 60,000 remaining lead service lines, grossly contaminated soil from a long industrial past, and peeling lead paint in their schools. This executive order provides the groundwork for the DEP to consider these many exposure sources as they develop new and more protective regulation to protect EJ communities from lead.
Local environmental justice heroes, Rev. Dr. Horace Strand, founder of the Chester Environmental Partnership, Jerome Shabazz, Executive Director of the Overbrook Environmental Education Center, and Maurice Sampson, Eastern PA Director of Clean Water Action, have been working for decades to bring environmental justice to their communities. The executive and legislative actions announced on October 28th, 2021 would not be possible without their tireless work.