Environmental Justice in the Water Industry

Nov. 29, 2022
An overview of the Environmental Justice Plan created by Executive Order 14008, how it works, and the tools available.

What is Environmental Justice?

The EPA defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” The environmental justice plan is part of an Executive Order titled, “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home & Abroad.”

Environmental Injustice in the Water Industry

The environmental justice plan is important to the water industry to resolve some of its challenges. Examples of environmental injustice in the water industry include:

Inequality for wastewater monitoring of SARS-CoV-2

A study evaluating California’s wastewater monitoring efforts for the COVID-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) found that the majority of wastewater monitoring occurred in urban areas and very few in disadvantaged communities.

Risk of contaminated groundwater

People in rural areas who rely exclusively on groundwater from domestic, private wells are at health risk due to contaminated groundwater. Industrial discharge, hazardous waste facilities, and farming run-off are some of the main sources of this contamination and groundwater management is complicated due to socio-economic disparity in these rural areas compared to urban areas, along with the fact that private wells are not regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).

National Water & Wastewater Infrastructure Needs

In 2021, the wastewater infrastructure received a grade of D+ while the drinking water infrastructure received a grade of C- from the American Society of Civil Engineers Infrastructure Report Card. The 2021 report is available on the ASCE website.

Many wastewater treatment plants and their collection of pipe networks are old and replacement is costly. The drinking water infrastructure, made of millions of miles of underground pipes to deliver safe drinking water to people is also old and underfunded. The result of these – water main breaks are common. Aging wastewater treatment plants and poor drinking water quality have been reported in urban neighborhoods such as in Mount Vernon, New York and also recently in the South as in Jackson, Mississippi.

Executive Order: Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home & Abroad

Executive Order 14008 — signed by President Biden on January 27, 2021 — includes three parts with environmental justice in part II under “Securing environmental justice and spurring economic opportunity.” The main objective of the environmental justice plan is to provide disadvantaged communities (i.e. historically marginalized and overburdened communities) with economic opportunities and to mitigate the climate-related effects on human health and the environment in these communities.

The Environmental Justice Plan

The environmental justice plan was initially in Executive Order 12898 (EO 12898) and in 2019, it was announced for revision and reinvigoration as it was more than twenty years old. Thus arrived the Executive Order titled, “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home & Abroad” in 2021 (EO 14008).

The main goal of EO 12898, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, was to achieve environmental protection for all communities. In short, federal agencies had to identify human health and the environmental effects due to federal actions in disproportionally affected communities and to develop strategies to implement environmental justice.

EO 12898 is comprehensive in how the federal agencies should implement environmental justice for minority and low-income populations in the United States, its territories, and for the Commonwealths of Puerto Rico and the Mariana Islands. This includes the creation of an interagency working group by the EPA Administrator. This working group consists of heads of several federal agencies (listed in EO 12898). Additionally, it mentioned that research and data collection should include diverse population including low-income and high risk populations.

EO 12898 vs EO 14008

The EO 14008 is more comprehensive than EO 12898. While it focuses on climate policy − specifically on clean energy procurement and management – it also covers how to use investments in clean energy to achieve environmental justice. This is specifically achieved by investing in and creating a clean energy economy that provides well-paying jobs to disadvantaged communities – mentioned in section 219 of the EO 14008. The aim is to turn these historically marginalized and overburdened communities into healthy, thriving communities all the while resolving climate change issues and also preparing for its effects.

Like EO 12898, EO 14008 also includes an interagency group called the Interagency Council. However, the EO 14008 has more appointments – it includes Environmental Justice Officers and an Environmental Justice Advisory Council to assist with the EO.

In addition to consulting with the council’s members and leaders on current and historic environmental justice issues, the goal of the Interagency Council also includes developing clear performance metrics to bring awareness to environmental justice. This is done in the form of a performance scorecard released annually to the public and will be discussed in the following section.

How does Environmental Justice Work?

There are available tools that could be used to implement environmental justice: the performance scorecards, the environmental justice screening tool (EJ screen), and the supplemental environmental projects (SEPs).

Performance Scorecards

Performance scorecards track the voting histories on environmental justice issues. The House and the Senate for each state vote on a list of environmental issues and depending on the votes, a scorecard is presented. For example, California’s environmental justice scorecard for 2021 has a table with a list of the senate and assembly members and the environmental bills they supported or opposed. Taking the votes on the bills into consideration, a percentage was calculated and a letter grade was presented. Maryland’s 2021 environmental justice scorecard also had this format but no letter grade was presented. There is also the 2021 National environmental scorecard that had scores for the Senate and the House based on their votes on several environmental issues.

Environmental Justice Screening Tool or EJ Screen

Additionally, the EO 14008 includes the creation of a justice screening tool, published annually and highlighting environmental issues in disadvantaged communities. The EPA has this screening tool online and it is called EJ screen.

EJ screen is an interactive map for screening environmental justice throughout the United States. It provides users with information on twelve environmental and seven demographic indicators.

After launching the tool from the EJ screen home website, the user can type in an address in the top-right window and then click on any index from the top-left. The resulting color(s) appearing on the screen represents a percentile for the indicator.

The EPA uses the EJ screen to implement enforcement and compliance and also for its community outreach programs. However as the EJ screen’s website mentions, it has limitations – it is not comprehensive for risk analysis and the estimates have uncertainties.

Supplemental Environmental Projects (SEP)

One of the ways environmental justice is implemented in affected communities is by using the Supplemental Environmental Projects (SEPs), announced by the EPA in May 2022. The SEP is an enforcement tool used by the EPA’s Enforcement Program to provide environmental or public health benefits to communities harmed by environmental violation(s). They are local projects that the defendant(s) can undertake, as part of the enforcement settlement to resolve the environmental violation(s) and to provide environmental or public health benefits.

SEPs are voluntary and are not legally required. They are applied in accordance with the EPA’s SEP policy which provides the terms to enforce the settlement. The EPA does not develop or fund the SEP; rather they are developed and implemented by the defendant(s) or the respondent(s) only if they are interested.

Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO)

There is a website for information on settlements that used the SEP, called ECHO (EPA’s Enforcement & Compliance History Online). After selecting on the parameters on this website, the user can generate an information report.

Environmental Justice in the Water Industry

While the performance scorecard provides information on the votes for environmental issues, the EJ screening tool, included in EO 14008 and described in this article, provides information about the monitoring efforts and water contamination in our communities.

For example, it identifies where groundwater is contaminated and where the water monitoring efforts are focused. This information can point out where environmental injustice is occurring and thus, where monitoring directions should be focused for disadvantaged communities. If a community is affected by environmental pollution, the SEP is one of the enforcement strategies to provide remedies for the systematic environmental violation(s).

2022 Updates on Environmental Justice

Updates to the Environmental Justice Plan include the creation of a new office for environmental justice and notices of public meetings. Additional updates are listed below:

September 2022

The EPA announced the creation of the new Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights. The office, in addition to overseeing the implementation of the climate and environmental justice grant program created by the Inflation Reduction Act, would engage with underserved communities to understand their needs and to improve on environmental justice.

Additionally, the Office of Land and Emergency Management (OLEM) Environmental Justice Action Plan report identified projects to address the challenges and the tools associated with delivering environmental justice. These projects included understanding the demographic and economic characteristics of communities where permitting of the RCRA (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act) treatment, storage, and disposal facilities are occurring. The tools included the Superfund Enterprise Management Systems that uses EJ Screen to flag environmental justice concerns.

October 2022

U.S. EPA issued a Notice of Public Meeting to get input on environmental justice considerations for the development of the proposed Lead and Copper Rule Improvements in the SDWA.

November 2022

The White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council issued a Notice of Public Meeting to include discussion for the strategic, scientific, and regulatory issues related to environmental justice.


Living in a clean environment and having clean water are basic human necessities. No one should be a victim of environmental pollution. While it does happen, there are available tools to identify concerns and to achieve environmental justice: the environmental justice scorecards, the EJ screening tool, and the SEPs.

About the Author

Saleha Kuzniewski

Saleha (Sally) Kuzniewski, Ph.D. is a scientist specializing in water research, including environmental remediation and biotechnology research. In addition to her work as a researcher, adjunct faculty, and scientific consultant, she received an award for outstanding contribution at the U.S. Geological Survey, best paper at the Virginia Academy of Science, and local funds to develop a biotechnology undergraduate course. She has also authored several publications including on the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) and on other environmental regulations including on the Safe Drinking Water Act.  Dr. Kuzniewski received her BS in biology from William Smith College, Master of Environmental Science from Memorial University of Newfoundland, and her Ph.D. in Environmental Science and Public Policy from George Mason University. Kuzniewski can be reached at [email protected].

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