The importance of environmental justice communities in stakeholder engagement strategies

Environmental justice aims to ensure equitable treatment, active engagement, and unbiased safeguarding of all individuals, regardless of their background, originor incomes in environmental matters. It seeks to ensure that all communities have equal access to a healthy environment and are shielded from environmental harm. This principle is rooted in the recognition that historically marginalized and low-income communities have borne the disproportionate burden of pollution and other environmental hazards.

In this blog post, we’ll delve into the realm of environmental justice, exploring its definition, the challenges in defining EJ or DACs, and how EJ issues can influence the process and outcomes of infrastructure projects. Furthermore, we’ll discuss the significance of engaging with environmental justice communities as part of a comprehensive stakeholder engagement strategy and highlight some of the tools available that can positively impact project outcomes.

What is environmental justice?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful participation of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, in the development, implementation, and enforcement of laws, regulations, and policies that affect the environment.”

Through environmental justice, all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, or income, should have equal access to a healthy environment, and equal protection from harm. This is because historically, low-income, minority communities,  and sovereign Tribal Nations have been disproportionately affected by pollution and other environmental hazards.

How are environmental justice communities defined?

Beyond the above global definition, however, there are disparities in how EJ communities are named and defined.

Efforts to do so have been made. In the United States, to help identify communities living with environmental injustices, the EPA launched the EJScreen in 2015, an environmental justice mapping and screening tool based on environmental socioeconomic and demographic indicators.

After President Biden signed the EO 14008 in January of 2021, The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) developed the Climate and Environmental Justice Screening Tool (CEJST). The tool has an interactive map and uses datasets that are indicators of burdens in eight categories: climate change, energy, health, housing, legacy pollution, transportation, water and wastewater, and workforce development. The tool is used to identify communities that are disadvantaged because they are overburdened and underserved.

The Department of Energy developed the Disadvantaged Communities Reporter to help identify Disadvantaged Communities (DACs) to better allocate benefits of climate and energy investments supported by funds through the Justice40 Initiative.

DOE’s working definition of disadvantaged is based on cumulative burden and includes data for thirty-six (36) burden indicators collected at the census tract level. These burden indicators can be grouped across the following four categories: Fossil Dependence, Energy Burden, Environmental and Climate Hazards and Socio-economic vulnerabilities.”

But at the state level, not all states are taking the same approach. While the concept of environmental justice is often used in legislative contexts, the vocabulary chosen to refer to communities affected by it and the criteria for doing so vary widely from place to place.

California, for example, which also has its own environmental health screening tool, the CalEnviroScreen (CES), refers to “disadvantaged communities,” while New Jersey refers to “overburdened communities”. In Massachusetts, “environmental justice populations” must meet one of four criteria, but in New Jersey, communities must meet all three criteria: low-income rates, demographic distribution, and English language proficiency.

Such inconsistency can lead to confusion, and certainly complicates the task of legal professionals, in litigation cases, for example.

And while it seems desirable that discussions on the definition of “environmental justice communities” continue, Byron Chan, senior counsel at Earthjustice, cautions that “by defining a term you cabinet it instead of addressing the breadth of what makes an environmental justice community. These very clear thresholds are ultimately very arbitrary and do not take into account the complexity of what constitutes an environmental justice community.

How can environmental justice communities influence the process and outcomes of infrastructure projects?

In projects involving the creation of infrastructure, environmental justice issues can arise at every stage.

Site selection

At this early stage, projects may choose to locate in an area with minimal environmental impacts and minimal impacts on the surrounding population. But they may also decide to locate in a sensitive area, with a commitment to reverse the trend, hand in hand with the people involved.

Planning and design

Conscientious developers should consider the needs and concerns of the community on site, including public transportation, housing, and protection of cultural and natural resources.


During the construction phase of the project, environmental justice can be related to issues of reducing GHG and other harmful emissions from construction equipment, reducing the amount of waste generated, and even excessive noise from the construction site.

Finally, monitoring and enforcement of environmental regulations during and after construction may also be influenced by environmental justice considerations. For example, the project may need to provide sufficient resources to ensure that regulations are met, and the community is protected.

Why are EJ communities important to your stakeholder engagement strategy?

Part of the importance that is given to EJ communities is for legal and incentive reasons.

For example, in the United States, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), an independent agency responsible for regulating interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas, and oil, has been increasingly asked in recent years to consider environmental justice issues in its decision-making processes.

In 2020, FERC issued an order to recognize the importance of environmental justice in its decision-making, stating that the agency will “consider the environmental justice effects of its decisions in a more systematic and transparent manner.” This includes a commitment to work with environmental justice communities and to consider the cumulative effects of multiple energy infrastructure projects in a given area.

Also in the U.S., Justice40, a Biden administration initiative that comes directly from the White House, seeks to address environmental injustices by prioritizing the needs and concerns of marginalized communities and ensuring that they benefit from the transition to a clean energy economy. With this program, the government has set a goal that 40% of the overall benefits of certain federal investments will benefit disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and suffering because of pollution. To take advantage of this initiative, organizations have a vested interest in ensuring that they capture the concerns of affected communities.

Increasingly, regulators and funders are taking environmental justice into account, forcing companies to do so as well.

Organizations that can demonstrate a higher level of commitment toward engaging with stakeholders located in environmental justice areas, or disadvantaged communities may be favored by funders and legislators when it comes down to attributing siting permits.

How can effective stakeholder engagement support environmental justice and improve project outcomes at the same time?

Infrastructure projects can have a significant impact on the environment, including on vulnerable communities. The implementation phase of these projects therefore raises environmental justice issues and challenges, particularly when affected communities are not sufficiently involved in the decision-making process. Stakeholder engagement therefore becomes an essential element of infrastructure development, as it can help mitigate these issues and challenges, and contribute to the success of the project.

In practice, this requires project leaders to :

  • knowing the historical issues that have affected communities in the past, those among them that still affect them, and the new challenges they face. This includes, for example, recognizing the importance of paying more attention to the engagement of Tribal Governments through the recognition of past injustices and abuses.
  • knowing the details of the current situation of the communities: demographics, language and means of communication, most influential community organizations, etc. A social media charm campaign may not work if the community has limited access to the Internet.
  • recognize that environmental justice communities may have different needs and interests than other communities around the project, and that their voices and concerns may require different tactics and tools to be heard.
  • be able to demonstrate to regulators and investors that they are aware of dealing with environmental justice communities, and that they are taking steps to ensure that they are involved in the project.

What kind of tool can facilitate engagement in environmental justice areas?

Borealis, our stakeholder management software, is designed to support organizations in their engagement efforts.

Among other things, it can allow you to:

  • Centralize and systematize the collection of all types of data, using the Stakeholder Engagement Module
  • Structure the information obtained and make it easily accessible to all concerned.
  • Improve the planning of stakeholder engagement activities and the allocation of required resources.
  • Provide members of disadvantaged communities with an anonymous space to voice their concerns.
  • Help demonstrate measurable local benefits that are part of community benefit agreements. Whether donations to community-based organizations or labor engagement and development, the Social Investment Module can help track those actions and ensure they align with EJ communities need.
  • Provide regulators and investors with detailed reports of efforts to include these communities in the project.

Moreover, Borealis lets you add shapefiles from public sources like the Climate and Economic Justice Screening tool into the platform. This is particularly useful when overlapping with project design maps or corporate assets to understand where those areas are in relation to your project or quickly know which stakeholders from EJ communities need to be part of your engagement plans.

Effective stakeholder engagement is critical to mitigating environmental justice issues and challenges in the implementation of an infrastructure project. In disadvantaged areas, stakeholder engagement can strengthen community participation, foster decision-making, promote transparency and accountability, improve thre project design and implementation, and encourage partnerships and relationships.

By involving their stakeholders in their project, companies can better understand the concerns and needs of communities and work to address them. This can lead to better project outcomes that reflect community needs and values, and ultimately to more equitable and sustainable infrastructure development.

The Story of EJ

The concept of environmental justice was born in the United States in the late 1970s. Its origin is associated with two events in particular that acted as a kind of scout for collective consciousness. In 1968, the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike for fair pay and better working conditions led to the first national mobilization against environmental injustice. Then, in 1979, in Houston, Texas, a group of African-American homeowners filed a class action lawsuit against a corporation to prevent the construction of a landfill within 1,000 feet of a public school and 2 miles from six schools. The lawsuit was the first of its kind in the United States to challenge environmental discrimination in the siting of waste facilities under civil rights laws. And although the plaintiffs were unsuccessful, the event was a precursor to environmental justice.

Source : epa.gov

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