Nearing the end of his term, Wolf issues executive order to bolster environmental efforts

Democrats in the Republican-controlled Legislature have proposed bills to make provisions under the executive order permanent

By: - October 28, 2021 3:55 pm

Maurice Sampson, eastern Pennsylvania Director for Clean Water Action, speaks during a press conference with Gov. Tom Wolf and Democratic lawmakers on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. (Screenshot)

Looking to bolster his administration’s efforts to address environmental justice, Gov. Tom Wolf has issued an executive order to create a series of roles geared toward combating climate change and supporting communities harmed by pollution.

But as the Democratic governor enters the remaining months of his second — and final — term, a package of bills introduced by members of the Legislative Black Caucus would make Wolf’s directive permanent by law.

Late Wednesday, Wolf signed the order establishing the Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Environmental Justice, headed by a director appointed by the department secretary, the Environmental Justice Advisory Board, and an Interagency Council.

“We need to ask ourselves, ‘What impact does the thing that we’re doing, what is that going to have on specific communities,” Wolf said during a Thursday press conference. “We haven’t been asking that the way we should in the past.”

The council, Wolf said, will use a multi-agency lens to offer feedback on environmental justice challenges and opportunities across Pennsylvania.

Currently headed by Director Allison Acevedo, the Office of Environmental Justice was established in 2002 and is involved in the department’s permitting process. 

The Environmental Justice Advisory Board oversees the department’s public participation policy and guides conversations on environmental justice and inequities, which historically affect communities of color — also called “burdened communities.”

“We have no shortage of examples across the commonwealth of instances where residents and communities throughout Pennsylvania bear the disproportionate environmental burden of pollution from environmental racism, exacerbated through policies and practices like redlining and gentrification,” Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell said, citing the impact redlining and gentrification have had on low-income and communities of color.

Bills sponsored by Democratic lawmakers from Philadelphia: Reps.  Donna Bullock, Malcolm Kenyatta, Chris Rabb, and Sen. Vincent Hughes, would codify the Office of Environmental Justice and the advisory board. They’ve also introduced a resolution to recognize the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the 17 principles of environmental justice, which were presented at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in October 1991.

Speaking at the press conference, held at the Discovery Center, a nature-based environmental space in Philadelphia on Thursday, the lawmakers said their proposals would require a transparent process before a facility builds or expands in “burdened communities.”

“This is a really special moment, and not just because it’s the 30th anniversary. But also 50 years ago, we became one of the few states — actually only two now — that has a green amendment,” Rabb said. “Pennsylvania codified environmental stewardship into its state constitution, but what does it mean if we don’t have the tools to honor that foresight?”

The press conference came one day after the Senate voted 32-18 to pass a resolution disapproving Wolf’s signature environmental initiative — the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative

Familiarly known as RGGI, the initiative is a multi-state organization that caps carbon emissions from power plans and forces plant owners to purchase credits to offset their greenhouse gas output.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who’s the only declared Democrat running for governor in 2022, also announced his separation from the proposal as a gubernatorial candidate on Wednesday. However, it’s unclear whether Shapiro’s opposition will carry over into his job as Pennsylvania’s top prosecutor, where he plays a key role in allowing RGGI to advance.

Erica Clayton Wright, a spokesperson for the Senate Republican Caucus, described Wolf’s order as the latest effort to “advance his political and ideological agenda” through executive action.

“When it comes to environmental justice and climate change, the fact remains that for our commonwealth to achieve its financial and environmental goals, we must unlock our homegrown energy assets for all to prosper,” she said in a statement. “Today’s announcement by Gov. Wolf is one more example to add to a long list of actions demonstrating an ‘I know best approach’ that continues to ignore the broader cultural demographics and geography of our commonwealth.”

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