This article is from the What Can We Gain from Being Local and Vocal session during ISRI2021. If you would like to watch this session in its entirety, you can still register for ISRI2021 here. This session, along with others, are available to attendees on-demand.

Environmental justice is not a new concept, but it is one that has gained increased importance this year as the Biden Administration and many states have committed to improving the environment and public health in people of color, indigenous, and low-income communities across the country. During the What Can We Gain from Being Local and Vocal session that took place on the first day of ISRI2021, panelists discussed what EJ is, recent efforts surrounding it, and how companies can play a role in making sure this topic is properly addressed in their communities.

What is Environmental Justice and the State of EJ today

According to Julius M. Redd, principal, Beveridge & Diamond, environmental justice usually encompasses two principles: fair treatment and meaningful involvement. Fair treatment is the idea that no community endures a disproportionate share of environmental burdens. Meaningful engagement means that all communities have a say and a chance to participate in what happens to them in their environment.

Currently, there is no overarching environmental justice law on the federal level, but there are environmental justice principles at play in various statutes at the federal level. President Biden took things a step further shortly after he took office in January, when he issued Executive Order 14008: Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, which has several principles that directly address EJ issues. This includes a “whole-of-government-approach,” where more agencies in the federal government are now being tasked with achieving environmental justice as part of their mission. Other themes of Executive Order 14008 include the enhancement of federal government accountability; increasing enforcement in EJ areas; making sure data is available to communities so they can be advocates for themselves; and making sure that disadvantaged communities get their fair share of benefits to address EJ issues.

EJ Best Practices

For companies looking to increase their environmental justice initiatives, Redd recommends they set a baseline and establish specific processes related to EJ. When setting a baseline, he recommends developing an EJ policy and an external-facing EJ statement. He also says employees should be educated on environmental justice, and provided resources on the subject.

When establishing specific processes, Redd recommends developing an implementation plan for incorporating EJ into daily decisions, including a mechanism for oversight of projects and community relations; developing a documentation process for project development and responding to community complaints; and increasing public outreach and participation in siting decisions and environmental permitting.

Engaging in the Policy Process

To start his discussion, William (Bill) Kirk, partner, K&L Gates, recited the famous quote that “if you’re not at the table, you might be on the menu.” From an EJ perspective, he explained that if companies don’t engage in the policy process at the various levels that affect them, they are subject to being defined by others, correctly or incorrectly. If incorrectly defined by others in the public policy space, you have to spend valuable time trying to undo what could be misleading information. So it’s important to engage and be vocal at the local, state and federal levels, to establish who you are as a company, and as an industry as a whole.

Over the years, ISRI has been a shining example of how to engage at the federal level, says Brian Shine, president, Manitoba Corp. That example taught Shine the importance of engaging at the local level with local legislators. This includes inviting legislators to the company’s facilities and having productive conversations. The importance of showing your face, getting involved and demonstrating your commitment to and interest in the community cannot be understated, he says.

When engaging, Kirk points out that it’s important to understand who all the stakeholders are. There are industry stakeholders and community stakeholders. Kirk notes that when engaging with community stakeholders, it’s important to remember, and acknowledge, historic decisions that have been made that could have impacted a community, especially if those decisions led to environmental or health hazards; something that has often been the case for low income and communities of color. Shine adds that whenever you hear from people in the community, it’s an opportunity to engage in a positive and constructive way with your neighbors, and fix existing issues.

Engaging With the Community and With Your Own Company

When engaging with the community, Shine recommends inviting people in the community into your facilities to provide them a different perspective. He is also a believer in doing events in the community such as an annual company cleanup day, where the company shuts down production for the day and spends the entire day outside doing a spring cleanup. They also have a cookout and invite people from the community to come out and join them. Shine says these events go a long way externally with the community, but also internally with employees, as they get a chance to see that the company is serious about being a good community participant and neighbor.

Shine is also a big proponent of supporting the youth. He says that when you engage with the youth, it can not only have a long-term effect on them, as they may want to one day work in the industry, but it could also impact their parents’ perceptions of scrap facilities.

Internally, Shine says that the onus is on the company and its leadership to appropriately set the table for its employees and provide an example of how to be good neighbors within the community. Management of a company has an opportunity to encourage employee participation, which can go a long way in building healthy community relations. “It’s all about acting appropriately, as we would want our neighbors to act around us,” he says.

ISRI will continue this discussion on environmental justice on April 29 during the Environmental Justice: What Is It and Why Is It Important session. Matthew Tejada, director of the EPA’s Environmental Justice Office, will discuss the EPA’s efforts on environmental justice with ISRI president Robin Wiener, and Dan Garvin, president of Colorado Iron & Metal, Inc.

Photo caption: Julius M. Redd, bottom right, shares best practices for companies looking to increase their environmental justice initiatives.