By Kelsey Adkisson

Newswise — Under the midday sun, several people sat fishing on the bank of a meandering river. They were just downstream from a nuclear power plant.

“Most people don’t fish in the middle of a weekday,” said Dave Anderson, an economist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). “It turns out, they were fishing for food.”

Since 1994, PNNL has been assessing environmental justice related to licensing large, complex energy infrastructure projects, which sometimes occur near minority and low-income communities. Like the people fishing, these communities can be directly affected by the noise, chemicals, traffic, and other effects of industrial areas and may not see any of the economic benefits toward their long-term quality of life. When a site is proposed, multidisciplinary teams from PNNL are behind the scenes identifying potentially affected communities and conducting evaluations to see if there are disproportionate impacts to underserved groups.

“Environmental justice is achieved when everyone, regardless of race, culture, or income, has the same protections from environmental and health hazards and equal access to decision-making,” said Ann Miracle, risk and environmental assessment group manager at PNNL. Miracle also serves on the National Association of Environmental Professionals board.

PNNL’s team of environmental justice experts mine data from the census, state and county taxes, mapping software, and even road infrastructure and traffic counts. Yet there are many things that numbers alone do not show.

“We also do a lot of ‘boots on the ground’ work by visiting areas and talking to everyone—from various community leaders and officials to pastors,” said Anderson.

“We engage them to hear their concerns about the proposed project," he said. "We listen to them, and others they suggest contacting, so that we fully understand potential impacts.”

The team has worked on projects throughout the country and seen environmental justice play out in many ways.

Environmental justice: well-being, values… and traffic

Environmental justice impacts come in many forms, including deceptively benign ones like traffic. Deep in the heart of rural South Carolina, a powerplant—the region’s economic linchpin—was looking to expand its footprint. Next door, a small town straddled each side of the local highway.

In this instance, the local population was almost exclusively Black, and stakeholder interviews showed extreme poverty that was not revealed in census data. Many residents relied on backyard gardens or subsistence fishing for food. And, many walked as a primary form of transportation.

During powerplant construction, Anderson estimated a 50% increase in traffic volume, which could disproportionately affect the local people.

“Environmental justice determinations include supplementing census data with investigations into the area. In this case, interviews with local community leaders lead to the finding of disproportionately high and adverse environmental justice impacts related to traffic,” said Anderson.

This South Carolina assessment, co-led by PNNL in support of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, used a robust stakeholder engagement program coupled with data analyses to fully evaluate environmental justice issues and identify an appropriate mitigated solution, such as increasing road infrastructure.

"PNNL's environmental justice roots stem from 25 years of supporting NRC, yet this work has evolved into other federal, state, and industry arenas such as the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, the Bonneville Power Administration, and others,” said Tara O’Neil, PNNL nuclear regulatory subsector manager and Earth systems science advisor.

Solutions to reimagine environmental justice

As decision makers face the practical realities of overcoming environmental justice hurdles, they need the right tools to reimagine a new system that accounts for risk across all populations and income brackets. Like a Swiss Army Knife, the goal is to develop a suite of ways to peel back the layers of this complex challenge. Through decades of hands-on experience, PNNL has built several tools and robust capabilities, including:

  • The Framework for Assessment of Complex Environmental Tradeoffs (FACET) is a science-based, data-driven framework to navigate and rigorously evaluate tradeoffs between complex environmental, economic, and social impacts. One of FACET’s strengths is the ability to integrate complex environmental factors and long-term challenges, such as climate change, into its advanced modeling. It offers customizable framework options for policy and business decisions, resulting in risk-informed, socially equitable, and defensible valuations for all stakeholders.
  • The Comment Response Management System has been used by numerous agencies to synthesize stakeholder comments rapidly and effectively. It can efficiently process tens of thousands of comments, shortening agency response time while facilitating consistency and assuring comments and concerns are captured and incorporated into the decision-making process.
  • Effective stakeholder engagement strategies and logistics— from conducting oral history interviews to running public meetings—to capture the potential impacts of complex projects on communities or groups, including underserved communities. The intent is to make sure everyone has access to the decision-making process.
  • Cultural resource and environmental justice coordination to enhance environmental assessments.

“Environmental challenges are becoming more complex—climate change, sea level rise, or even extreme weather events are emerging issues that are our new normal. We are creating new approaches to account for changing baselines and advance a new era of environmental justice efforts,” said Miracle.

45 years with NEPA

When large, complex federal projects or policies are proposed, they trigger a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review. A proposed action is assessed for potential negative and positive impacts from many different angles, including environmental and socioeconomic. NEPA also entails a comprehensive stakeholder engagement process.

One challenge in this process is overcoming cultural, geographic, economic, or language barriers that might prevent engagement. For example, evening meetings might be a barrier for someone who works night shifts. Or, virtual meetings might be a hurdle for people without access to technology.

“Minority, low-income populations, Tribes, and indigenous peoples have a unique way of life, and vulnerabilities,” Miracle said. “We reach out early, in a meaningful way to identify their values, and find appropriate ways for people to participate in the decision-making process.”

For 45 years, PNNL has partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, federal and state agencies, and industry to identify and engage minority, low-income, or other historically disadvantaged populations in regulatory decision-making for large, complex federal projects.

With climate change, population growth, and increased energy demands, competing tradeoffs create even more complexity for environmental assessment and environmental justice efforts.

“With the increased need for environmental justice reviews, along with the Biden Administration’s Executive Order 13985, we continue to refine our tools and capabilities to support the nation on this important issue,” said Miracle.