EPA Unveils Its Power Plants And Neighboring Communities Mapping Tool Further Addressing Environmental Justice Concerns

Vinson & Elkins LLP

Vinson & Elkins LLP

The Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) recently unveiled its new Power Plants and Neighboring Communities mapping tool as part of its commitment to Environmental Justice (“EJ”). The mapping tool displays: the location of fossil fuel power plants; power plant emissions; community demographic indicators; and the location of select tribal lands. EPA has developed this tool as part of its broader commitments related to climate change and EJ. EPA has also signaled that it intends to build similar maps for other industries, which could include refining, petrochemical, and other chemical facilities. As shown by this mapping tool, environmental data will continue to become more transparent to the public. Consequently, operators of industrial facilities should understand that local communities will take on an increasingly effective role in ensuring that facilities comply with the law.

The Mapping Tool

The Power Plants and Neighboring Communities mapping tool identifies the location of over 3,400 fossil-fueled power plants alongside key demographics of people living within three miles of those plants. The mapping tool also provides six key demographics that are consistent with those used in EPA’s EJSCREEN (Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool) — low-income population; people of color; population under age 5; population over age 64; population with less than a high school education; and linguistically isolated population.

The mapping tool highlights power plants located in or near communities with one or more of the above six key demographics at or above the 80th percentile. EPA utilizes the 80th percentile as a starting point to identify those geographic areas that “may warrant further consideration, analysis, or outreach.” The mapping tool provides data within a three-mile radius of fossil-fueled power plants, a zone consistent with EJ “literature and studies, including the EJ Screening Report for the Clean Power Plan.”

In conjunction with the Power Plants and Neighboring Communities mapping tool, EPA also has an Announced Power Plant Retirements map, available on its GeoPlatform. Combining data from the National Electric Energy Data System and the U.S. Energy Information Administration Monthly Update to the Annual Electric Generator Report, the interactive map shows announced coal and natural gas power plant retirements through 2030.

The Effect on the Future of EJ Enforcement

As we have noted previously, EJ enforcement is a priority of the EPA under the Biden administration and the leadership of EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. However, the fact that the EPA built the Power Plants and Neighboring Communities mapping tool first (rather than another sector) may not indicate an emphasis on EJ enforcement in that sector. That is because unlike other sources, power plant emissions generally have “landscape level” impacts on human health and the environment, which are not particular to individual communities, much less to those within three miles of the plant.

Accordingly, it is possible that the EPA created the Power Plants and Neighboring Communities mapping tool simply because EPA has a great deal of information regarding power plant emissions that could easily be integrated into a new mapping tool. Nevertheless, this first mapping effort is an important signal, particularly for other sectors like refining, petrochemical, chemical, and storage terminal facilities where emission data may not be so easily accessible, but which can have more localized impacts on EJ and other communities. Given enough time, EPA could build additional mapping tools for those and similar sectors.

As the relationship between air emissions and local impacts becomes more apparent and the data becomes more easily accessible, especially in EJ communities, there are increased opportunities for local activism, citizen suits backed by environmental non-governmental organizations, and complex litigation regarding torts.

Regulated industries should consider the following to lessen the possibility of enforcement and/or litigation efforts:

  • Identifying EJ Communities: Utilizing mapping tools, such as the Power Plants and Neighboring Communities map and EJSCREEN, to identify relevant EJ communities that may be impacted by industry activity. Some states, such as California, have their own EJ tools (e.g., CalEnviroScreen).
  • Community Outreach: Building and maintaining good relationships with local communities to develop strategies addressing public health and EJ issues.
  • Transparency: Ensuring data transparency, particularly of data required to be reported to federal and/or state authorities, to strengthen relationships and build trust with EJ communities.
  • Monitoring EJ Developments: Continuing to stay informed of regulatory developments pertaining to EJ and maintaining strong communication with federal and state agencies.

The Biden administration is expected to continue its efforts addressing EJ and enforcement, as well as other avenues to advance its EJ goals.

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Vinson & Elkins LLP

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