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Pennsylvania's new environmental justice policy includes more communities impacted by pollution

A crowd of protesters hold up signs.
Elaina King-Bryce
The Allegheny Front
Fernando Treviño, DEP's special deputy secretary for environmental justice, says he moved to Beaver County for a couple of weeks to build trust with local advocates and community leaders regarding the agency's oversight of Shell's ethane cracker. This rally was held by clean air advocates on June 8, 2023.

Pennsylvania’s updated environmental justice policy aims to broaden participation for communities most impacted by pollution and industry.

The Department of Environmental Protection has been holding virtual and in-person community meetings around Pennsylvania to get feedback on the updated Environmental Justice Policy it adopted on Sept. 16. More meetings are being scheduled before the public comment period ends Nov. 30.

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke about the policy with Fernando Treviño, DEP’s Special Deputy Secretary for Environmental Justice.

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Kara Holsopple: How does DEP define environmental justice?

Fernando Treviño: So DEP, in its new policy, we have a full definition for an environmental justice area. It’s long, but basically, the just treatment and meaningful involvement of all people in the decision-making process.

But I think that beyond the actual definition for us, the most important component is the new vision that we’re trying to bring to environmental justice. And that’s that this is not only about Black and brown communities. Obviously, we will continue to work with Black and brown communities. I’m a Latino immigrant, so it’s my own community.

But the reality is that communities across the Commonwealth are really vulnerable to environmental impacts. We want to take the traditional definition of just using two factors to identify an environmental justice area — income and race — and really have a more comprehensive system to identify these communities, using a lot of environmental factors as well.

So we have been traveling around Pennsylvania since the beginning of the administration, and we can identify that a lot of white, rural communities across the Commonwealth really are vulnerable and should be part of environmental justice issues.

What are some of the other main changes or updates in this new policy from the previous version? 

We have now a more comprehensive, enhanced public participation process, and that means that we really want to develop a connection with the community and empower them to be part of this process.

As a reminder, because it’s important for everyone to know, we are not changing regulations, and we’re not adding extra requirements to the permitting process. We just want to make sure that the communities that could be affected the most have a real voice and are part of the process from the beginning.

Traditionally, the DEP would talk to environmental justice communities only when there was [an industrial] permit or an emergency. We want to change that, and we want to be more effective in communicating with them. That means having an embedded environmental justice team in each of our regions and making sure that we are developing long-lasting relationships with these folks.

What would that look like? 

For example, for me, the microcosm of something that I really want to see happening across the DEP is the work that we’re doing with Shell. For a long time, the advocacy community and residents of Beaver County were protesting not only the plant but also DEP because the DEP unfortunately didn’t have the resources to develop a relationship with these communities the way that they deserved.

So when the secretary asked me to take the lead on the Shell Environmental Mitigation Community Fund, I really wanted to make a similar approach to this long-lasting relationship that we’re trying to build.

So, instead of just organizing community meetings in general, I literally moved to Beaver County for a couple of weeks, and I started having individual one-on-one meetings with key community leaders, with key advocates, to make sure that I would get to know them. They would get to know me and explain our new approach.

And once they did that, we moved to the more formalized outreach. We moved into more community meetings, and to the point where now we are on the engagement piece. That has allowed us to bring two of the most active organizers against DEP, against Shell, to be part of the decision-making process, to have a relationship with us, to work with us, and sit at the same table.

So I love to always share that story because that’s a microcosm of what we’re trying to accomplish. This is not about talking to environmental justice communities just for the permitting process but really developing those relationships and making sure that they are part not only of the specific permit that they have in front of them, but they are part of how the DEP conducts itself and develops relationships long term.

This policy is a non-binding document. Are there any plans to make it enforceable with rules?

So in order to make it enforceable with rules, it’s not up to the DEP. It’s up to the legislature to pass bills that will make some of this stuff mandatory. Still, we believe that this is a great step in the right direction to start creating that conscience within DEP, and also within the industry and with EJ communities, that we could be doing better and that we can guide DEP staff to really incorporate EJ considerations into their work. But again, I want to be very clear, it’s not up to the DEP to change regulations or to pass legislation.

What have you been hearing from folks at these meetings?

To be honest, we have received everything from, ‘Oh, my God, this is way too much, you’re overreaching,’ versus we want you to be more aggressive, and then everything in between.

But look, it’s understandable, right? The industry will push back a little bit because they are concerned that the permitting process could be delayed with a new, enhanced public participation process. We’re telling them we’re working with the constraints of the regular timeline, and within the context of environmental justice, we’re not adding a single day to the process because it’s not only a comprehensive way to communicate with the community, but we’re adding the extra capacity.

Now, for the first time in history, the Office of Environmental Justice has a regional coordinator in each of our regional offices, and we’re also adding extra capacity in the central office to help with a caseload. So, yes, we’re adding a couple of extra steps, but also the staff who will be running that piece.

On the other hand, you have the community leaders and advocacy community really wanting to move the Commonwealth in a process where environmental justice considerations can actually decide if a permit is issued or not.

And we understand that consideration. We understand where they are coming from. But right now, again, because of the existing regulations and legislation, we cannot get there. So I believe that, in general, the feedback has been really positive, critical to some degree, of course, but always in a very positive and constructive way to move the conversation forward.

Read more from our partners, The Allegheny Front.

Kara Holsopple is the host of The Allegheny Front and reports on regional environmental issues. She began working in radio as a volunteer for Rustbelt Radio, a project of the Pittsburgh Independent Media Center. A lifelong resident of western Pennsylvania, Holsopple received her undergraduate degree from Sarah Lawrence College and earned a Master of Professional Writing from Chatham University. She can be reached at