State transparency on environmental justice activity lags

Power Station Chimneys
Industry in dramatic red sunset light. Chimneys and cooling tower of a coal fired power station. (Schroptschop/Getty Images)

State transparency on environmental justice activity lags

Video Embed

(The Center Square) — Though state and federal governments have poured vast amounts of money into programs under the banner of environmental justice, Pennsylvanians who want to watch meetings of their own EJ Advisory Board are out of luck compared to other states.

The board meets every quarter and invites public participation, but — unlike several other states — does not publish video recordings. The Tuesday meetings, which can run six hours long, can be difficult to watch live because they happen during the workday.

Nor is the Department of Environmental Protection quick to turn over meeting recordings when asked. To get a copy of the board’s August meeting, The Center Square had to file a public records request after being denied a copy over email.

In many other states, though, public access is the default.

New York, Colorado, Vermont, California, North Carolina, Connecticut, and Washington all post recordings of their advisory board meetings for public viewing.

Some states — like Colorado — go even further and publish public comments, grant applications, draft recommendations, and documents from their working groups on topics like carbon and storage. California pledges to post video recordings within five days of a meeting, and New York pledges three days.

Sambridhi Pandey, spokeswoman for the Colorado Environmental Justice Program, said its advisory board members have expressed support for posting meetings records since its creation in 2021.

She said it takes staff a few business days to upload recordings, which are offered in both English and Spanish.

DEP argued that Pennsylvania’s advisory board, or EJAB, is less public-facing, saying its purpose is to advise the agency “on environmental justice concerns across Pennsylvania.”

“This is consistent with other advisory boards and commissions that advise DEP on their topics of expertise,” DEP Press Secretary Josslyn Howard said. “EJAB allows for virtual attendance at the meetings and works to schedule the public comment portion of the meeting at times that may be more convenient for those unable to attend. In addition, community members may still provide comment even if they are unable to stay for the entire EJAB meeting.”

Howard said it offers public comment periods during meetings and fields complaints as ways the agency responds to concerns.

“These methods of outreach give EJ (environmental justice) communities more direct voice over their areas of concern, allowing DEP to directly address these concerns,” she said. “Even with these processes in place, DEP is committed to exploring opportunities for innovation, and we will continue to identify ways to make participation in EJAB more convenient.”

DEP makes the meeting minutes available online, but it can take months because those notes aren’t posted until finalized at the following meeting. Without a recording, the public may not understand where money is going, how it’s being spent, and what environmental concerns have been discussed.

Former Gov. Tom Wolf created the board via executive order in 2021. DEP Secretary Rich Negrin described environmental justice as “really focusing on and supporting communities that have been impacted by environmental emergencies” during the August meeting. More than a dozen states have created environmental justice advisory boards, and the White House did so in 2021.

Though not every state has an environmental justice advisory board, about half of them routinely post meeting recordings online.

Federal action has sent billions of dollars to EJ-related programs, including a $27 billion Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund and a $3 billion Environmental and Climate Justice Block Grants program that has funded Pennsylvania efforts for lead cleanup, flood mitigation, and other activities. DEP also provides extra consideration for funding if a project is in an environmental justice area.

Not every public meeting is as difficult to get a hold of as an EJAB meeting, however. Though they also aren’t posted online for public viewing, PennDOT provided copies of its State Transportation Innovation Council and Pedalcycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee meetings upon request within a week — without demanding a public records request.

© 2023 Washington Examiner
Facebook Comments