Environmental Justice Update: EPA Provides Toolkit to State and Local Governments on Community Engagement

Sometimes where to begin is the hardest part. The US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recently released Toolkit is intended to help local and state governments start their environmental justice (EJ) journey through community engagement.

While this Toolkit, entitled Capacity Building Through Effective Meaningful Engagement, is intended for the use of state and local governments, it provides broadly applicable guidelines that are generally also applicable to private entities addressing EJ concerns. Below, we break down what is in the Toolkit, discuss why it matters, and outline EJ-related issues which may be just over the horizon.    

What Is in the Toolkit

The Toolkit “is intended to help local and state government officials create or expand” plans for community engagement, and notes that planning will depend on existing levels of engagement with affected communities, the level of community interest, availability of resources, and other factors. The Toolkit provides a roadmap with an eight-step outline which local entities may follow. It includes:

  1. Local entities should consider who might be affected by relevant decisions and develop processes to loop in community members who might be affected by any decision.
  2. Intentionally create structures to accept community feedback in a manner that respects limitations imposed by limited prior knowledge or language barriers and allows for clear explanations to be provided to community members throughout the decision-making process.
  3. Developing processes so that community input can be received – and conflicts resolved – throughout the decision-making process. The roadmap notes that facilitators are sometimes needed to support difficult conversations or where community relationships have been previously strained.
  4. Develop a plan to foster community involvement throughout the decision-making process including things like criteria for decision-making, the relevant timeline, and accountability measures.
  5. Consult with community members on the engagement plan so that the community is informed and setting the stage for ongoing acceptance of feedback.
  6. Proactively work to create momentum for the community engagement plan by looping in additional community members on the existence of the plan and by considering steps like piloting elements of the plan to see what works and what doesn’t.
  7. Gather feedback about the plan to determine whether it is effective or if steps can be taken to make it more effective.
  8. Maintain open community engagement by developing a cadence for ongoing community engagement extending beyond initial projects. This is important because community engagement can exist in a feedback loop leading to improvement over time in community relations. 

Finally, the Toolkit provides examples of various non-traditional engagement strategies including “Mayah’s Lot,” a graphic novel illustrating a story of how young people engaged to address environmental concerns; California state efforts to address lead poisoning believed to be caused by makeup used in immigrant communities; and EPA efforts to train teachers to address indoor air quality efforts in schools. 

Why This Matters

EJ issues are complicated and often feel intractable. Since EJ issues became a regulatory priority, EPA has prioritized community engagement along with other issues like requiring all government agencies to address EJ concerns. Community engagement and capacity building has been prioritized by private sector groups as well. (See here for an example.) The Toolkit stresses the need for state and local governments to take affirmative steps to ensure that community members are engaged in decisions which can affect them. The Toolkit provides steps government agencies can take to foster community input in EJ communities. 

Community identification and engagement goes hand-in-hand with other efforts to broaden community involvement in policymaking. Stated simply, the federal government has prioritized providing access to government planning and policymaking and has attempted to increase regulatory transparency. The Biden Administration efforts falling into this bucket include:

  • Efforts by the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs to study means to broaden public participation in regulatory processes;
  • A January 20, 2021, White House memorandum entitled “Modernizing Regulatory Review,” which focuses in part on ensuring that “regulatory initiatives appropriately benefit and do not inappropriately burden” disadvantaged communities; and
  • Executive Order 13985, entitled “Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.”

What’s Next?

Prioritizing community engagement in the environmental space will likely remain a priority for both governmental entities and regulated businesses. For businesses and governments, working to build robust relationships with communities around business operations can help to manage EJ-related risks. (For a broader discussion on this topic, see here.)

Members of the firm’s EnvironmentalEnergy & Cleantech, and AgTech groups regularly monitor state and federal administrative activity with broad implications to the regulated community. Contact us with questions about how these efforts or programs affect you.


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