Biden Administration Highlights Environmental Justice While Changing Trump Policies

FPA Committee and Staff Track Developments Through Periodic Reports

Digital Exclusive

Each quarter, FPA’s Environmental, Health, and Safety Committee (EHS) reports to members on federal environmental regulatory and court developments, capturing the significant policy changes that can affect the industry. After a new administration takes over, the changes can be significant and numerous. That was true four years ago when Donald J. Trump became president and again this year following the swearing in of Joseph R. Biden Jr.

“When Donald Trump became president, he issued dozens of executive orders to dismantle government, more or less, and many of them were directed at reducing regulatory costs,” says Leslie Sue Ritts, FPA’s attorney who monitors federal policies for the organization. “Not only did we track these developments, but FPA submitted comments to the Department of Commerce suggesting how to streamline and cut unneeded costs and achieve an economic and environmental balance.”

Biden, too, wasted no time issuing executive orders—signing several significant environmental policy directives on his first day in office—and some countered Trump-era initiatives, says Ritts. The orders included directives for the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and to close the review of dozens of environmental “regulatory relief” actions taken by the Trump Administration. Biden also signed Executive Order 13990, which tied together U.S. climate change with environmental justice initiatives, she adds.

Since Biden has taken over, Ritts and Ram K. Singhal, an EHS committee member and FPA’s vice president for technology and environmental strategy, have been busy tracking the numerous changes so FPA members can stay informed.

Environmental Justice on the Biden Agenda

In normal times, the EHS committee meets in person each quarter over two days, rotating the location at FPA member facilities around the country. During COVID-19, the meetings have been virtual. At the committee’s meeting on Feb. 23, which was just over a month after Biden took office, Ritts’ presentation emphasized directives that the Biden Administration will take to freeze or undo specific environment and energy regulations put in place by the Trump Administration.

She urged FPA members to pay particular attention to how the Biden Administration is combining climate change and racial equality as a touchstone in EPA air and water permitting and environmental compliance across the government.

“Environmental justice will be a goal in every program, no matter what it is,” Singhal says. “I think we will be pretty busy looking at the environmental justice issues and how we could be involved.”

EPA defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies,” according to an EPA news release in April. “Environmental justice is a major part of the agency’s core mission of protecting human life and the environment.”

Ritts says that means that environmental justice issues will be central to EPA enforcement, civil penalties, third party settlements, and Supplemental Environmental Projects (SEP), which are voluntary agreements to settle issues with the EPA. SEPs were “restored” by one of the first actions of the Biden Administration, having been cast by the Trump Administration as robbing the U.S. Treasury of civil penalties, she adds. Under various environmental laws, EPA can issue penalties at $42,000 per day, per violation, Ritts says, and SEPs are one tool that all parties generally favor as returning these civil fines to communities for environmentally beneficial projects. “You are talking about the potential of millions of dollars in civil penalties when EPA enforces federal environmental laws,” Ritts says, adding that FPA members need to be aware of the changing dynamics in this new Administration as it “amps up” its enforcement efforts.

In April, EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan directed all EPA offices to integrate environmental justice considerations into their plans and actions. 

“Too many communities whose residents are predominantly of color, Indigenous, or low-income continue to suffer from disproportionately high pollution levels and the resulting adverse health and environmental impacts,” Regan said in a message to all agency staff. “We must do better. This will be one of my top priorities as administrator, and I expect it to be one of yours, as well.”

Regan called on all EPA offices to take several steps, including strengthening “enforcement of violations of cornerstone environmental statutes and civil rights laws in communities overburdened by pollution.” 

Keeping Current

For decades now, Ritts has updated the FPA “Environmental Issues Index” each quarter. The index, which has grown to 86 pages, includes regulatory and court issues going back years. It is an organic document, evolving as new issues are added or old issues see advancements—with the new information highlighted in yellow on the report—so FPA members can get a quick overview of what is going on, Singhal and Ritts say. 

“It’s all tailored to what they need to know,” Ritts says. “It has turned out to be a pretty fantastic resource.”

Singhal networks with the various federal offices, keeping tabs on who is running things and where to go for answers. “Ram keeps up with all the agency people,” Ritts says. “We know who to call about specific issues, and we go from there.”

The index gives the highlights but steers people to Singhal for supporting materials or other advice. Issues are given a status, a recommended action by FPA, and a priority level that can range from “archive” to “FYI” to “Low,” “Moderate,” or “High.” But the simplicity of the index helps users determine where they need to focus in a sea of laws, changing regulations, and court decisions. 

“There is so much going on in different parts of the industry that it is very difficult for any member to keep track of all of them,” Singhal says. “This offers central access. It is good guidance for members, and everything is in one place, as opposed to tracking 20 places and not being able to do it all. It is a good place to start.”

The index is written so anyone can use it as a resource, but it is mostly geared toward environmental compliance engineers among FPA’s membership. Ritts and Singhal routinely follow up with detailed reports on some issues and give presentations for the EHS committee like the one in February, Ritts says.

The Work Ahead

Among the numerous topics covered in the index early in 2021 was an overview of recent actions involving solid waste and definitions of solid waste. In this area in recent years, FPA has been able to help its members in the disposal and recycling of materials used in manufacturing flexible packaging, Ritts says. And that topic is a good example of how issues can start decades ago and still be unresolved. “I know people who have spent over 40 years doing nothing but litigating the definition of solid waste,” Ritts says, adding that example demonstrates the value of a resource that tracks incremental changes in policies. 

As the index is updated through the year, Ritts expects to include details on EPA regulatory reversals and new enforcement initiatives.

Several longstanding issues will remain important to FPA members, including how the federal government continues to monitor greenwashing. In June 2015, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced a “Zero Tolerance Policy” for false green claims. Ritts says the FTC increasingly will make enforcement a priority.

“It was done to make sure that people understood that things aren’t recyclable just because somebody says that they are recyclable,” she says. “The bottom line is that you can’t say a lot of stuff is recyclable or decomposes, because in the real world if you put it in a triple-lined landfill, it will not decompose.”

Singhal adds that FPA is studying sustainability and recycling developments and also funding research in these areas for its members.

Although the index includes “run-of-the-mill environmental issues,” Ritts says, it remains an excellent way for FPA members to stay on top of what they should monitor. 

“FPA’s Index is an incredible resource,” Ritts says. “Having been involved with most of the major trade associations over my career, this is the only trade that does this.” 

Thomas A. Barstow is senior editor of FlexPack VOICE®.