Below is an excerpt from the comments we submitted to the EPA:
In Louisiana, the communities that are in the closest proximity to and most impacted by fossil fuel infrastructure, petrochemical manufacturing, and fossil fuel-fired power plants are also often relatively poorer and more likely to be majority non-white than other parts of the state. These communities have not only often seen their concerns left unaddressed despite clear and dire public health impacts, but historically were often purposefully disenfranchised.
With this history in mind, to be truly effective and to redress wrongs past and current, we assert that policies surrounding public engagement should not be treated as simply offering opportunities to participate; they must be aimed at correcting past injustices and preventing future ones. And while this policy largely frames meaningful involvement as the EPA collecting feedback on decisions it is considering making, it does not seem to consider the possibility of the public requesting or recommending decisions to be considered. We also suggest that the EPA consider the possibility of meaningful involvement to include solicitation from the public of what problems they would like to see the agency address.
The Alliance recommends that the EPA clarify that, beyond determining the general “levels of participation,” that agency staff may need to further determine how to equitably engage with various stakeholder groups. For example, business and industry, trade associations, labor unions, and national nonprofit advocacy organizations are likely to employ or contract lobbyists or governmental affairs staff who are able to dedicate significant time and resources to engaging with agencies such as the EPA. Meanwhile, community organizations, residents, and even small businesses are less likely to be able to do the same, and therefore, less able to participate on equal footing. In our view, achieving “meaningful engagement” requires recognizing these disparities and working proactively to address them in the public participation process.
We recommend that the EPA more explicitly address what it means, in a more fundamental sense, for all members of the public to be meaningfully involved in decision making processes. Because the fact of the matter is that a corporation seeking permits for its business and the people living downwind or downriver of that site are rarely ever equally influential actors or equally equipped or able to participate in regulatory or rules-making processes.
Finally, the Alliance would like to note that the meaningful involvement policy seems to be written from the perspective of the EPA coming to the public or stakeholders to weigh in on decisions they have already made (or, that it has been determined will be made, pending the required decision-making processes). This makes sense given the way policymaking processes are generally practiced, but we would suggest to the EPA that truly meaningful involvement requires more than this.
To really ensure meaningful involvement, public engagement should not only be about involving the public in decisions being made on their behalfs – but in empowering the public to identify priorities, problems, and solutions for agencies like the EPA to pursue on their behalf. While this may not be the document for such considerations, we hope that the EPA will consider the possibility for deeper forms of public involvement as a way of upholding and strengthening democracy and environmental justice in the United States.