ZIP code discrimination, pollution top concerns at DEP meeting on environmental justice policy

By: - October 12, 2023 10:44 am

Another view of the Cheswick Generating Station (Pittsburgh City Paper photo).

Air quality, interagency collaboration, and community investments were among the chief concerns shared by Pennsylvanians about the commonwealth’s interim environmental justice policy at a public meeting Wednesday evening. 

The meeting was hosted by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Justice (DEP) to allow citizens to offer suggestions and voice any concerns about the proposed policy. 

The 27-page policy outlines DEP’s approach to connecting with Pennsylvanians living in environmental justice communities — those disproportionately affected by factors such as poor air quality, old housing and infrastructure, and limited transportation — and explains how the agency will handle environmental compliance and enforcement efforts in these areas. 

The virtual meeting was short, lasting just 32 minutes with only a handful of Pennsylvanians making remarks about the policy. 

“There really should be a more coordinated environmental justice function that is not only DEP, ” Freda Tepfer of Erie, said. 

Tepfer also raised concerns about microscale air pollution, such as those from idling semi trucks congregating in parking lots and other areas.

That air pollution, she said, is not tracked by PennDOT or DEP. 

“That is something that is falling through the cracks,” Tepfer said. “So, somehow there needs to be a way of addressing microscale air pollution impacts.” 

Barbara Giovagnoli, of Lackawanna County, said that she’s supportive of a statewide environmental justice policy due to poor air quality in her area, which is caused by pollution getting stuck in the valley between mountains. 

“We have way too many environmental hazards going on here,” she said. “We get what is referred to as an inversion. What happens during an inversion are any … smokestacks, chimneys — any type of emissions coming up in the valley —  gets trapped in this inversion.”

Inversions, sometimes called temperature inversions or weather inversions, occur when cooler air gets trapped at ground level due to warmer air above it. Inversions have also been an issue in Allegheny County’s Mon Valley, Public Source reported earlier this year.

John Barkanic, a chemist and engineer, expressed concern over Section Seven of the interim policy on community investments. 

Barkanic said that many alternative energy and energy efficiency projects, aimed at reducing emissions and mitigating the harms of climate change require funding from financial institutions, such as banks and credit unions, but under Section Seven, lenders can use the individual’s ZIP code as a determining factor in whether to issue a loan. So individuals applying for funding for these projects from underserved communities are often overlooked for funding for environmental projects.

“When you have people applying for credit or people applying for a loan, or people applying for grants, they shouldn’t really be looking at the ZIP code as a criteria for whether or not someone can meet their financial obligations and paying back the loan,” Barkanic said. “The ZIP code alone, by itself, is one of those things that just basically fosters arrested development in those communities.”

Barkanic suggested to DEP officials at the meeting that Section Seven should be removed entirely from the interim policy to address the issue. 

Eight more meetings will be held between Oct. 12 and Oct. 26 and all public comment is due to DEP by Oct. 29. 

DEP Environmental Justice meetings begin this week. Here’s how to participate

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Cassie Miller
Cassie Miller

A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry.