Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Gov. Cooper Wants Environmental Board for ‘Whole Government’

The North Carolina governor issued an executive order on Tuesday that will expand the state’s Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board to 20 members, establish new actions for the cabinet agencies and set up a new website.

Gov. Roy Cooper is using a new executive order to broaden the reach of North Carolina’s environmental justice advisory board and to expand its mission to encompass all 10 cabinet agencies.

The N.C. Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board previously had 12 members and served to provide the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality with counsel. With Tuesday’s Executive Order 292, the Environmental Justice Advisory Council will have 20 member — 10 of whom will come from the public and representatives from each of the state’s 10 cabinet agencies.

“This order that I’m signing today takes a whole government approach that brings more communication, more listening and more transparency,” Cooper said in a Tuesday afternoon ceremony at the N.C. Executive Mansion.

The order sets out a number of actions, including directing each cabinet agency to develop three goals within 120 days that will advance environmental justice and describe how they plan to measure their success in meeting those goals.

It also sets up a new online home for the state’s environmental justice work and orders the creation of a new mapping tool that the public will be able to use to try to understand the impact pollution is having on their communities. Cooper hinted Tuesday that he hopes that mapping tool can be used to make a case for new laws that allow DEQ to consider nearby pollution and its impact on human health when making permitting decisions.

“Putting together the mapping tool and the data to show cumulative impacts, I think, is going to show us a lot of what we have been actually hearing from our communities,” Cooper said. “It’s going to tell us the effects of pollution, it’s going to show health data. So I think that putting this in place is going to be hard to stop it because of the information that’s going to be created.”

Additionally, the order directs DEQ and the N.C. Department of Commerce to deliver a report by Oct. 15, 2024, showing which businesses received Job Development Investment Grants from the state since 2017 and have received notices of violation from DEQ.

Sherri White-Williamson, a current member of the environmental justice board and the N.C. Conservation Network’s director of environmental justice strategy, told The News & Observer that moving the board from DEQ to directly under Cooper shows that state agencies should take environmental justice seriously.

“I think this sends a message that they not only be more aware, but also take appropriate actions based on what you are becoming aware of that will make North Carolina better for everyone, particularly folks in low-income communities and in communities of color in the state,” White-Williamson said.

Elizabeth Biser, the secretary of DEQ, said working with the environmental justice board has broadened perspectives inside the agency she leads. The board will continue to provide insights and perspectives, now benefiting other state agencies, Biser said Tuesday.

“Elevating the Secretaries’ Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board to a new Governor’s council sends a powerful message that environmental justice and equity are bigger than one agency,” Biser said.

Understanding Environmental Justice

Environmental justice is the idea that everyone has a right to clean air and water, as well as a right to have a say in what sources of environmental exposure are located in the communities.

Cooper promised an order focused on environmental justice when he signed Executive Order 246 in January 2022. The previous order set greenhouse gas reduction targets for the transportation sector and directed the 10 agencies under the governor’s control to appoint an environmental justice lead and develop public participation plans that guide how communities engage with proposed projects.

“It is a stark reality that underserved and marginalized communities often feel the brunt of pollution and the effects of climate change more than others. This executive order that I’m signing today continues our efforts to try to change that,” Cooper said Tuesday.

The national environmental justice movement has North Carolina roots. Its origin is considered to be the 1982 Warren County protests against a landfill that contained soil contaminated with PCB.

Years of concern about the state government’s decision to place the landfill in a community with mostly Black residents who drank well water culminated in six weeks of protests, with many laying in front of dump trucks loaded with the contaminated soil to prevent them from reaching the Afton site.

“It’s long overdue, obviously, but this is something we can work with, and at least it lays the groundwork for future movement forward,” said White-Williamson, who also founded the nonprofit Environmental Justice Community Action Network in her native Sampson County.

In May 2018, then-DEQ Secretary Michael Regan chartered the environmental justice board. It has issued advisory statements on issues like permitting the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the growth of the wood pellet industry in the state and the ongoing consideration of the state’s general permit for hog farms.

Veronica Carter, a sitting environmental justice board member who also serves on the Leland Town Council, told The N&O that Tuesday’s executive order puts the advisory board into a more appropriate place in state government.

For one thing, Carter said, the board will be better positioned to understand how decisions made by agencies across state government are impacting environmental justice. Having Cooper’s attention is also important for turning the board’s insights into action, Carter said.

“When the governor says, ‘This is important and I want all of you to do this,’ that won’t be advice,” Carter said. “That will be him telling his cabinet secretaries, ‘I want you to do this.’”

New Mapping Tool

All of the state’s environmental justice resources and reports will be published on a new “environmental justice hub” web page set up by the state’s Department of Information Technology.

A new mapping tool will be published to that hub, featuring data that shows where permits that allow pollution have been granted; where low-income communities and communities of color are located; what health effects communities are feeling; air quality data and climate risk data. It will pull from mapping tools created by DEQ, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and N.C. Department of Transportation.

Under the executive order, the Department of Information Technology is tasked with publishing that mapping tool within a year.

That information will be available to members of the public, businesses, local governments and state agencies. One potential use for it is to assess cumulative impacts, or the layering of multiple environmental risks on top of each other, heightening threats to human health and the environment.

In a prepared statement, N.C. DHHS Secretary Kody Kinsley said, “The environment where we live, work, and play has a tremendous effect on our health throughout our lifetime. Unfortunately, some communities in North Carolina experience greater health impacts from environmental threats. That’s especially true for communities of color.”

Cumulative Impacts

Advocates and community members frequently raise concerns about cumulative impacts during contentious environmental permitting cases, with industrial facilities seeking new or revamped permits and nearby residents arguing they are already living with too much pollution from facilities already operating, nearby highways or other sources.

DEQ officials have maintained they don’t have the statutory authority to consider existing sources of pollution when making nearly all permitting decisions. The lone time DEQ can consider cumulative impacts to deny a permit is for new landfills.

Asked Tuesday if DEQ wants the authority to consider cumulative impacts in additional permits, Biser said, “We want the ability to make sure that all communities have the benefit of not having a disproportionate impact from pollution.”

A News & Observer and Charlotte Observer analysis earlier this year found that 75 census tracts — home to about 200,000 people — have at least two permitted sources of pollution per square mile. That analysis did not account for the thousands of hog and poultry farms that can be found clustered throughout the state’s rural communities.

“One of the most important things is an understanding that the definition of environmental justice does not just include communities of color, but it also includes low-income communities and we find low-income communities all across the state, from the mountains to the coast,” White-Williamson said.

The new executive order directs cabinet agencies to consider public health when making “permitting, policy actions, and agency programs to the furthest extent permissible by law” while also directing agencies to use the new mapping tool to “inform” the siting of infrastructure and environmental permitting decisions.

In another effort to better understand cumulative impacts, the order directs the Environmental Justice Advisory Council to work with academics, particularly those working at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, to research how cumulative impacts are affecting residents across the state. The order also tasks the council with developing a framework for assessing the effects of those cumulative impacts.

Those steps have their grounding in a 13-page set of recommendations for addressing cumulative impacts that White-Williamson and other members of the environmental justice board delivered to Biser this summer.

White-Williamson views those recommendations as a starting point but said, “Obviously that’s not enough, and obviously in many communities there is a need for research and a better understanding of what cumulative impacts really means.”

This story was produced with financial support from the Hartfield Foundation and 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.

©2023 The Charlotte Observer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

TNS delivers daily news service and syndicated premium content to more than 2,000 media and digital information publishers.
From Our Partners