Oregon Joins California in Passing Environmental Justice (EJ) Legislation to Create EJ Mapping Tool

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  • The new legislation strengthens and diversifies the state’s EJ task force, now termed the “EJ Council.”
  • An EJ mapping tool will be created to provide geospatial information about EJ impacts to provide guidance for state agencies when adopting rules and policies.
  • The EJ Council will continue its work, now armed with additional resources; the new mapping tool may not be unveiled until 2025.

Last month, Oregon lawmakers took a considerable step in the state’s response to environmental justice (EJ) concerns. Gov. Kate Brown signed into law House Bill (HB) 4077, strengthening the state’s existing EJ task force and ordering the creation of an EJ mapping tool. The tool will provide EJ data to inform and support public and private efforts to improve EJ across the state in a variety of ways.

Improving EJ1 has been a priority of Gov. Brown, who initiated the legislation. Though Oregon has had an EJ law on the books for over a decade,2 in practice, the law lacked teeth and has been applied ad hoc and only in limited situations. The state’s EJ task force, established in 2007, comprises volunteers from around the state and advises the governor and natural resource agencies on EJ issues. The task force has for years worked to further EJ goals and develop EJ guidance for agencies, but without binding standards, comprehensive data, or consistent funding, on-the-ground progress has been limited.

Meanwhile, states like New Jersey, California, and Washington have been leading the way with legislation requiring state, and in some cases local, agencies to consider EJ in administrative decision-making. A key tool aiding those agency decisions is the development of public EJ data mapping resources. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) EJScreen and California’s CalEnviroScreen present environmental (e.g., air emissions, traffic, lead levels, hazardous spills, etc.) and demographic data across geographies to highlight communities disproportionately burdened with negative environmental and health outcomes. These data inform not just where environmental injustices lie, but what might be done about it and who is responsible.

I. Key Elements of HB 4077

Oregon’s HB 4077 stops short of some of the more aggressive requirements in Washington and California’s EJ legislation, but contains several key provisions to further state EJ initiatives. In key part, the bill:

  • Renames the Environmental Justice Task Force as the Environmental Justice Council, provides more administrative resources and funding for the Council, and specifies that the makeup of the Council should represent diverse interests including “minority communities, low-income communities, environmental interests, industry groups and geographically diverse areas of this state”;
  • Directs the Council to develop a publicly available EJ “mapping tool” including geospatial data layers using data from state agencies to provide “detailed” information about EJ benefits and burdens, and to develop guidance for state agencies as to how to use the tool when adopting rules and policies (though how this tool will supplement or improve on the Oregon data available in EPA’s EJScreen remains unclear);
  • Defines “environmental justice community” broadly, including not only tribal communities, “communities of color, communities experiencing lower incomes” and “health inequities,” but also “rural communities, remote communities, coastal communities, communities with limited infrastructure and other communities traditionally underrepresented in public processes and adversely harmed by environmental and health hazards, including seniors, youth and persons with disabilities”;
  • Allows—but does not direct—over a dozen state agencies (including Department of Environmental Quality, Department of Agriculture, Department of Forestry, Department of Energy, Public Utility Commission, Department of Transportation, and Oregon Health Authority) to “consider” the mapping tool results when developing rules, policies, and programs. But agencies may not use the tool during “agency decision-making on individual permits or applications unless otherwise required” by federal or other state law.

II. Upshots

Thus, the Council will set out on its task, soon to be armed with dedicated staff and more funding. Given the number and range of agencies named in the bill, the agencies’ wide berth to “consider” the forthcoming EJ data in administrative actions, and the breadth of the EJ communities to be identified by the mapping tool, HB 4077’s impact has the potential to ripple throughout existing administrative frameworks. The bill’s long runway, however, means we are unlikely to see major developments until 2025 and beyond.

The scope of these developments remains to be seen. Based on similar mapping tools and EJ developments at the federal level and in other states, it is possible agencies will adopt specific EJ requirements by rule, issue new EJ-focused administrative guidance, use the EJ mapping data in enforcement contexts, roll out new EJ-focused incentives programs, and even include EJ considerations in their procurement and contracting activities. One thing is for sure: when the mapping tool is unveiled, agencies, municipalities, EJ activists, members of the public, and industry players will have access to new, more robust state-specific EJ data that can inform agendas, spur action, and change how we address and redress environmental impacts in our communities. Oregon’s regulated community would be wise to pay attention and use these data to address EJ impacts proactively.

We will continue to monitor legislative and administrative developments as the Council and affected agencies implement the bill.

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1 Defined in HB 4077 as “equal protection from environmental and health risks, fair treatment and meaningful involvement in decision making of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, immigration status, income or other identities with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental … policies that affect the environment in which people live, work, learn and practice spirituality and culture.”

2 See ORS 182.545 (directing natural resource agencies to “consider environmental justice issues” in deciding whether and how to take administrative action).

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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