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Environmental Justice and NEPA in the Transportation Arena: Project Highlights

What is Environmental Justice?

Executive Order (EO) 12898, Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations, signed by President Clinton on February 11, 1994, directs Federal agencies to take appropriate and necessary steps to identify and address disproportionately high and adverse effects of Federal projects on the health or environment of minority and low-income populations to the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law. The FHWA remains committed to nondiscrimination and ensuring that every transportation project nationwide considers the human environment. Effective and equitable transportation decision-making depends on understanding and properly addressing the unique needs of different socio-economic groups.

Environmental justice is grounded in the practice of making sure that both benefits and burdens of transportation investments are shared as equitably as possible among all affected communities. Historically, low-income and minority communities have borne many negative effects of transportation projects and have gained few direct benefits. As a result, efforts to promote environmental justice in transportation focus on engaging these communities in transportation decisions. With an awareness and active promotion of the principles of environmental justice in transportation decision-making, practitioners can better avoid, minimize, or mitigate disproportionately high and adverse human health and environmental effects, including social and economic effects, on minority populations and low-income populations.[4]

Environmental justice addresses persons belonging to any of the following racial and ethnic groups, as defined by the 1997 Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Policy Directive 15, "Revisions to the Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity":[5]

A summary of key legislation and guidance addressing environmental justice and the transportation decision-making process is provided in Table 1.

Table 1. Timeline and summary of civil rights and environmental justice legislation.[6]


Legislation or Guidance


Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits recipients of Federal financial assistance from discriminating based on race, color, or national origin.


23 U.S.C. 140-Nondiscrimination (amended in 1991) refers to State employment assurances. Refers to race, color, creed, national origin, or sex.


NEPA requires Federal agencies to analyze the environmental impacts of their actions. Agencies must account for impacts on populations and consult the public throughout their analyses.


The Federal Highway Act of 1970 requires that adverse economic, social, and environmental impacts of federally supported highway projects be fully considered during project development and that final project decisions are made in the best overall public interest. The Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act of 1970 requires fair and equitable treatment of people displaced as a direct result of programs or projects undertaken by a Federal agency or with Federal financial assistance. Title VI Regulation 49 CFR 21, "Nondiscrimination in federally assisted programs of the Department of Transportation (DOT)," was enacted to effectuate the provisions of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the end that no person in the United States shall, on the grounds of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be otherwise subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance from the DOT.


The Rehabilitation Act of 1973/Section 504 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by Federal agencies, in programs receiving Federal financial assistance, in Federal employment, and in the employment practices of Federal contractors.


The Age Discrimination Act of 1975 prohibits age discrimination in programs receiving Federal financial assistance.


The Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, gender, national origin, age, or disability throughout an entire agency if any part of the agency receives Federal financial assistance.


The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) extended many of the protections and remedies of the Civil Rights Act to persons with disabilities, and broadened the Rehabilitation Act's provisions to entities that do not receive Federal funds.


The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) made major changes to transportation planning and policy. It created flexible funding, enhanced the role of metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), and strengthened the requirements for transportation planning and programming.


The Office of Environmental Equity was established in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (The Office was later renamed the Office of Environmental Justice.) This office was supported by a work group on environmental equity, which produced a report on examining environmental inequalities. Along with this office, EPA implemented a new organizational infrastructure to integrate environmental justice into their policies, programs, and activities.


The National Environmental Justice Advisory Council was created. This Council represents the first time that representatives of community, academia, industry, environmental, and indigenous, as well as State, local, and tribal government groups, were gathered to discuss and suggest solutions to environmental justice problems.


President Clinton signs Executive Order 12898: Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations, which requires Federal agencies to identify and address disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their programs, policies, and activities on minority and low-income populations.


The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) issues Environmental Justice Guidance Under the National Environmental Policy Act to assist Federal agencies with their NEPA procedures so that environmental justice concerns are effectively identified and addressed.


The DOT Order on Environmental Justice to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations (DOT Order 5610.2) establishes as DOT policy the full consideration of environmental justice principles throughout the transportation planning and decision-making processes, and provides guidance to the operating administrations regarding implementation of these principles.


The FHWA Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations (DOT Order 6640.23) further specifies how highway projects should incorporate environmental justice in complying with EO 12898. It is intended to prevent and address disproportionately high and adverse effects on minority and low-income populations.


The FHWA and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) issue a memorandum, "Implementing Title VI Requirements in Metropolitan and Statewide Planning," which provides clarification for field offices on how to ensure that environmental justice is considered during current and future planning certification reviews.


The EPA issues their "Final Guidance for Consideration of Environmental Justice in Clean Air Act 309 Reviews." This document provides guidance on reviewing and commenting on other Federal agencies NEPA documents to help ensure that environmental effects on minority communities and low-income communities have been fully analyzed. It is meant to be used internally by EPA reviewers.


President Clinton signs Executive Order 13166, which requires Federal agencies to develop systems by which people with a limited ability to communicate in English can access the services of those agencies. Title VI Legal Manual, U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, issues a manual intended to provide guidance on Title VI to Federal agencies and other interested entities.


The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) is enacted; it places additional emphasis on environmental stewardship, the consideration of environmental issues as part of Metropolitan and Statewide Transportation Planning, and increases the importance of public participation in the planning process.


The Obama Administration renewed the Federal Government's commitment to environmental justice by appointing a Senior Advisor on Environmental Justice at the EPA and reinvigorating the Environmental Justice Interagency Working Group (EJ IWG)-established by E.O. 12898-with an increased focus on public engagement.


On August 4, 2011, the Secretary of Transportation, along with heads of other Federal agencies, signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Environmental Justice and Executive Order 12898 (EJ MOU) confirming the continued importance of identifying and addressing environmental justice considerations in agency programs, policies, and activities as required by EO 12898. As part of the EJ MOU, each Federal agency agrees to review and update their existing environmental justice strategy as appropriate, and to publicize the updated strategy.


In December, FHWA issued its "Guidance on Environmental Justice and NEPA." This resource is meant to advise practitioners on the process to address environmental justice during the NEPA review, including documentation requirements. It supplements the FHWA Technical Advisory 6640.8A, which provides guidance for documenting the potential social, economic, and environmental impacts considered in the selection and implementation of highway projects.


FHWA Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations (6640.23A) establishes policies and procedures for the FHWA to use in complying with EO 12898. This directive updates FHWA Order 6640.23, "FHWA Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations," dated December 2, 1998. It is intended to prevent and address disproportionately high and adverse effects on minority and low-income populations.

The Final DOT Environmental Justice Order (Order 5610.2(a)) updates the DOT's original Environmental Justice Order (1997). The Order continues to be a key component of the DOT's strategy to promote the principles of environmental justice in all DOT programs, policies, and activities. It describes how the objectives of environmental justice will be integrated into planning and programming, rulemaking, and policy formulation. The Order sets forth steps to prevent disproportionately high and adverse effects on minority or low-income populations through Title VI analyses and environmental justice analyses conducted as part of Federal transportation planning and NEPA provisions. It also describes the specific measures to be taken to address instances of disproportionately high and adverse effects and sets forth relevant definitions.

The Revised DOT Environmental Justice Strategy (March 2012) continues to reflect DOT's commitment to environmental justice principles and to integrating those principles into DOT programs, policies and activities. The updated strategy also relies upon existing authorities for achieving environmental justice as described by the EO, such as NEPA, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI) and related statutes, as well as the commitments and focus areas set forth in the EJ MOU.


Updated: 2/4/2013
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