In this week’s episode, host Margaret Walls talks with Ana Baptista, an associate professor at the New School in New York City and codirector of its Tishman Environment and Design Center. Baptista discusses the cumulative impacts of pollution on environmental justice communities; the sources of pollution in these communities; and the groundbreaking legislation and data tools that are being employed by state governments, researchers, and environmental justice groups to mitigate cumulative impacts in overburdened communities.
Listen to the Podcast
- Cumulative impacts pile pollution on already overburdened communities: “Cumulative impacts represent the idea that, when a community has many sources of pollution, that community is exposed to a variety of chemicals from a variety of sources. Oftentimes, the underlying socioeconomic and health conditions will shape a community’s experience and increase its exposure, contributing to a combined effect of stressors.” (4:28)
- New law in New Jersey confronts cumulative impacts: “The state has developed a set of 23 stressors, and looked at the levels of those stressors in overburdened communities versus non-overburdened communities, and set a 50 percent threshold. If an industry is located in a community where those stressors are above the state average in non-overburdened communities, the industry is considered to be causing or contributing to adverse environmental health and public health stressors. The state must then deny the permit.” (19:07)
- Prioritizing action over the pursuit of a perfect measurement tool: “There’s a lot that we can explore and better refine, because the reality is that our cumulative-impacts tools are probably just scratching the surface of what the real impact is on communities. Our tool is likely wildly underestimating how burdened communities are, but we also can’t wait for the perfect methods of measurement. Improvements to the tool are important in parallel to taking action.” (27:02)
Top of the Stack
- “Understanding the Evolution of Cumulative Impacts: Definitions and Policies in the United States” by Ana Isabel Baptista, Adrienne Perovich, Maria Fernanda Pulido-Velosa, Enrique Valencia, Marisa Valdez, and Jennifer Ventrella
- Articles by Rachel Morello-Frosch
- Toxic Communities by Dorceta Taylor
- The Quest for Environmental Justice by Robert D. Bullard and Maxine Waters
The Full Transcript
Margaret Walls: Hello and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I’m your host, Margaret Walls.
My guest today is Ana Baptista, an associate professor in the Milano School of Policy, Management, and Environment at the New School in New York City, where she is also codirector of the Tishman Environment and Design Center. Ana’s research focuses on climate and environmental justice. She works on a range of issues, and most of her work involves deep community engagement. Prior to joining the New School, Ana served as the Environmental Justice and Planning Director for the Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark, New Jersey, where she now serves on the board of trustees.
Ana is here today to talk about cumulative impacts and environmental justice. We’ll ask Ana to tell us about the findings in a report she published in August 2022 on cumulative impacts, the new groundbreaking law in New Jersey that addresses cumulative impacts, and other policy developments. Stay with us.
Hello, Ana. It’s great to talk with you today. Thanks so much for coming on the show.
Ana Baptista: Hello, Margaret. Thanks for inviting me.
Margaret Walls: Before we dive into the topic of cumulative impacts and environmental justice, can I ask you to share a bit about yourself? Can you tell us how you came to work on environmental justice issues and pursue this combination of scholarship and community engagement that seems to be central to your work?
Ana Baptista: I tell people that I’m a bit of an accidental academic, because it wasn’t originally in my plans to end up at an academic institution. I grew up in a community called the Ironbound in the East Ward of the great city of Newark, New Jersey. Growing up in a place like Ironbound, you get a true sense of environmental injustice. I grew up close to industrial sites, the seaports, and what became the state’s largest garbage incinerator.
Some of my earliest exposure was to issues that, at the time, I didn’t know were called environmental justice or environmental racism. I understood it as people dumping in our communities. Residents in the community were organized and proud of their community. As a kid, I participated with my family in many of the protests, community meetings, and efforts to try to protect our community and improve our quality of life.
Growing up in that environment made me acutely aware of the differences between communities and neighborhoods and the lack of protections for communities like mine. I ended up going off to study environmental science and then, eventually, urban planning. My studies brought me full circle—home to do a doctorate at Rutgers University on environmental justice, and I got sucked right back into local organizing work with the Ironbound Community Corporation. I was privileged to be able to take all the things I learned in school and apply them in my own community.
Margaret Walls: Let’s start with the basic question for people to learn about what we mean by “cumulative impacts” and why we’re concerned with them, especially as they relate to environmental justice and disadvantaged communities. In your study, you say that cumulative impacts have been a focus in the environmental justice community for decades, even though they’ve only recently risen to the forefront in the policy world. Can you educate us on what exactly you mean by “cumulative impacts”?
Ana Baptista: Cumulative impacts represent the idea that, when a community has many sources of pollution, that community is exposed to a variety of chemicals from a variety of sources. Oftentimes, the underlying socioeconomic and health conditions will shape a community’s experience and increase its exposure, contributing to a combined effect of stressors.
Simply put, cumulative impacts cover multiple pollutants emitted by multiple sources in a community, including their interaction with each other and social vulnerabilities. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a more scientific, precise definition that talks about the combined exposure to a broad range of stressors, including pollutants, chemicals, what you inhale, what you drink, and what you eat. All of those things increase your vulnerability to environmental hazards and can result in significant environmental and public health harms and risks to people.
Margaret Walls: Do you also consider things such as exposure to flood risks, urban heat island effects, and climate impacts as part of that mix?
Ana Baptista: Definitely. Climate risks are part of the combination of factors that could impact an individual and a community’s well-being. Anything that increases the vulnerability and the exposure of residents to hazards is what we think of when we consider cumulative impacts.
Margaret Walls: Do cumulative impacts typically fall through the regulatory cracks? If they do, can you explain how and why that happens?
Ana Baptista: This is one of the biggest challenges in the environmental justice movement. People in communities that are facing multiple sources of pollution often go to their federal, state, or local agencies and they say, “We have too many exposures. We have too many pollutants.” Oftentimes, environmental regulations are not set up to define cumulative impacts—the interaction of pollutants from multiple sources. They regulate pollutants by media and by pollutant type according to federal and state statutes. It’s very frustrating for residents when they are experiencing a complex combination of factors that puts them at risk.
The environmental laws that we have don’t have a way to characterize those risks or to include them in the decisionmaking processes of things like permitting new pollution sources or enforcing or regulating those sources. This has definitely been an issue that has fallen through the regulatory cracks. It’s an issue that agencies increasingly are aware of and have studied but have not yet created the legal and regulatory tools to address these cumulative impacts affirmatively.
In May 2022, EPA put out a report and an addendum that looks at the agency’s legal authority to address cumulative impacts under current laws and statutes. In this report, EPA tried to distinguish where they have discretion and where they have an opportunity to consider cumulative impacts in the context of various types of decisionmaking settings. The document makes clear that these legal reviews are not meant to provide specific action on specific decisions. Those decisions are left to EPA offices, EPA programs, and states to make those determinations.
Margaret Walls: You are bringing up the role that states play, and that’s important, especially when it comes to permitting. I don’t feel that permitting gets enough attention, especially in environmental justice policy conversations. Can you talk a little more about how permitting works and the important role of state agencies in this process?
Ana Baptista: I have to emphasize how important permitting is. For many environmental justice communities and organizations, permitting is the bread and butter of many of the conflicts and fights that they engage in to protect their communities. Environmental justice communities have been grappling with permitting decisions for decades and oftentimes hit a brick wall, because there is no pathway forward to ensuring that permitting considers cumulative impacts.
Permitting in the environmental context has continued to maintain and entrench patterns of environmental racism, because it doesn’t affirmatively address the patterns of the concentration of polluting industries in communities of color and low-income communities. These patterns have been studied by many different scholars and environmental justice activists over decades.
We see a clear co-location of polluting industries in communities of color, Indigenous communities, and low-wealth communities. Permitting is one of the ways that those patterns continue to be entrenched, because permitting doesn’t take into consideration historical patterns of land use that originally segregated these communities and created concentrated pockets of industries. Environmental laws are generally the purview of the federal government and state governments. Most environmental laws, like the Clean Air Act, are passed at the federal level, while others are delegated to the states to carry out.
Most states are the legal entities that issue permits under their own legislation. In this, they have the opportunity to adapt and create their own version of the Clean Air Act that was originally delegated to them under federal laws. Even though EPA sets the floor—in other words, the federal Clean Air Act is the floor that states must implement—many states have the discretion to go beyond EPA’s laws and federal laws. They have a lot of discretion in the level of enforcement and scrutiny that they can apply to their authority to permit industries. Some states go far beyond what the federal laws are, but many barely implement the minimum federal requirements. We have quite a difference among states in terms of how they apply permitting.
Margaret Walls: Your report provides an overview of what’s happening in the states, including a detailed online tool that accompanies that report with links to peer-reviewed studies and pieces of legislation. It's a really good resource. Can you say a bit more about what you found on the differences across the states and if states are actually looking into addressing cumulative impacts?
Ana Baptista: The effort to pull together this tool and resource that the report highlights came out of requests from environmental justice advocates in different states who are pushing cumulative-impacts approaches in their own states. They are having a hard time coming up with a methodology or model legislation, because there isn’t a clear standard set of guidance across the United States.
So, we really looked at where states are implementing or trying to implement cumulative-impacts approaches either through legislation, agency policy, or guidance documents. We took a broad look at how states are defining cumulative impacts, what kinds of methodologies or mapping tools they’re creating, and how they’re fleshing out the particular issues in their own states and communities.
We found that in the last five years alone, there’s been a huge uptick in legislative activity at the state level with respect to cumulative impacts. There have been several laws proposed—and some actually passed—in places like New York, New Jersey, and California. There are many states who are passing cumulative-impacts laws and many that are proposing them, even though they’re not getting passed or enacted. There’s a big push from the environmental justice movement to advance cumulative impacts more forcefully.
The report also shows that, prior to the last few years, much of the cumulative-impacts work was happening in the form of studies, mapping, or guidance documents. The problem was being studied a lot. Then, we jump to today, where we see states taking a much more proactive approach to enact actual cumulative-impacts mechanisms, which includes decisionmaking mechanisms. Communities don’t want to wait for the perfect modeling and all the years and decades that science takes to study the problem. They want to have a bias to action and push into more definitive regulatory and protective approaches for communities.
Margaret Walls: Your home state of New Jersey seems to be at the forefront. In the latter part of 2020, the state passed a cumulative-impacts law. There were long years of work to get this into legislation, in which you played a role. Can you describe what the law does and where things stand now in implementing the law?
Ana Baptista: This law that passed in 2020 was almost a decade in the making. Environmental justice advocates in the state, groups such as Inbound Community Corporation and the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance (of which I am a very active member), had been pushing for an approach to cumulative impacts within our state regulatory agencies for a long time. Sometimes the political opportunity, interest, or will was just not there to pass a more aggressive law, but we continued in our effort to develop strategies to how one might approach cumulative impacts.
Along the way, many people told us that this was impossible, that we don’t know how to do cumulative-impacts policy, and it has never been done. Not to be discouraged, we pushed on, and we found a wonderful champion in Senator Troy Singleton, who is a New Jersey legislator. Senator Singleton championed this bill and entrusted environmental justice advocates to become thought partners and thought leaders alongside himself and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection staff, who we worked closely with to develop a specific law.
The law sets out which communities are environmental justice communities or, as the law defines them, “overburdened communities.” The law makes this classification by looking at the percentage of people of color, low-income people, and linguistically isolated people across every census block of the state and sets a threshold that is around the state average. Community census blocks above that state average are considered overburdened, or environmental justice communities.
The law has a set of facilities and a set of permits—mostly major permits, such as air-quality permits and anything related to waste or hazardous waste. Eight different types of facilities and several different types of major permits trigger this law. For example, if you’re an applicant seeking a permit (like an air permit that falls under Title V of the Clean Air Act) in an overburdened community census block group, you will be subject to the law and will have to prepare an environmental justice impact statement.
How they prepare the cumulative impacts assessment is a bit complicated and technical. The state has developed a set of 23 stressors and looked at the levels of those stressors in overburdened communities versus non-overburdened communities and set a 50 percent threshold. If an industry is located in a community where those stressors are above the state average in non-overburdened communities, the industry is considered to be causing or contributing to adverse environmental health and public health stressors. The state must then deny the permit. The legislation requires the state to say no to industries that will contribute any absolute amount of pollution in a community that’s already experiencing above average stressors.
The law also applies to renewals of permits. It allows the state to put in mitigating factors to condition existing permits at the time of renewal. This was the first and only law, until New York recently passed their law, which requires the state to say no on the basis of cumulative-impacts considerations.
Recently, the public comment period was introduced. We submitted comments on the rules. Often people think, “Oh, the law is passed; we’re done.” But it took us two years to go through the rulemaking process, which is the technical process of how the state will implement the law. Those rules are important, because they detail exactly how cumulative impacts will be determined, and they define all the parameters that the state will use to do those reviews. We’re expecting the final rule to be issued in February 2023. We’re looking forward to it.
Margaret Walls: That's right around the corner. Were the draft rules released for public comment?
Ana Baptista: They were released last year. There was a three-month public comment period, and now the rules are sitting at the governor’s office and are ready to be put into the register for implementation.
Margaret Walls: How much pushback did you get from industry through all of this? Was that a big part of the battles?
Ana Baptista: Oh, yeah. If you’re not getting pushback or opposition to your rule, it’s probably a bad sign that your rule is not strong. I took it as a good sign that we had significant industry opposition to the rule. They made many claims about how this rule is going to kill business in distressed communities, that it’s going to push industries completely out of the state, and that it’s too restrictive. There were a lot of industry concerns and opposition, many of which I think are largely exaggerated.
Many of them reflect the attitude that we need these environmental justice communities as dumping sites and as sinks. Without the ability to continue to place and concentrate pollution in industries in these communities, they feel threatened instead of thinking about how we can mitigate what we’re doing or how we can distribute pollutants from these industries to other places. It was telling but very expected.
We did anticipate opposition to the rule. We also had opposition from labor unions that were being pushed by industries to make claims that this rule would kill union construction jobs. For the most part, many of the facilities that are covered by the law have little job potential, especially for local economies and local communities other than construction permits. The law doesn’t apply universally to every kind of facility type. It’s narrowly focused on industries that are most impactful and polluting. We anticipated the pushback, we got it, and we think we will continue to get industry opposition as the state denies permits. We anticipate that that opposition will continue.
Margaret Walls: I’ve heard people say that health-risk assessments, which underpin EPA regulatory impact analysis and guide policy, are often focused on a single pollutant. Your comment earlier suggests we need to be moving on from that. In light of all these things going on, what research needs to be done around this topic? What are gaps that need to be filled?
Ana Baptista: There’s still a lot of work to do; for example, evaluating the benefits of cumulative-impacts interventions. What is the value of different types of approaches? When we say no to permits, do they move to other places and have similar impacts? Do we see conditions mitigating impacts in communities?
There’s a lot that we still don’t know about, including how to integrate more qualitative local forms of information about stressors into cumulative impacts, assessments, and tools. We have good data on things such as air quality, density of permits, and facilities. But there are lots of gaps in our knowledge about local conditions that could make a big difference to stressors in communities and that are important to the health and well-being of local areas. We also don’t have a lot of experience with integrating different types of data into cumulative-impacts analyses—things like participatory science and traditional ecological knowledge.
There’s great science being done to get a better sense of community-level and personal exposure to non-chemical and chemical stressors. We know that communities that are most vulnerable to pollution are also facing circumstances of chronic stress, uncertain housing conditions, lack of access to public health care, and, increasingly, climate change–related risks. How do these things combine to heighten the impact or risks from things like air pollution?
There’s a lot that we can explore and better refine, because the reality is that our cumulative-impacts tools are probably just scratching the surface of what the real impact is on communities. Our tool is likely wildly underestimating how burdened communities are, but we also can’t wait for the perfect methods of measurement. Improvements to the tool are important in parallel to taking action.
Margaret Walls: I see we are nearing the close of our time, and we always like to end our podcast with a regular feature that we call Top of the Stack. We ask our guests to recommend good content, whether it’s a book, an article, a podcast, or anything that you might recommend. So, Ana, what’s on the top of your stack?
Ana Baptista: For those of you who are interested in digging into the wild world of cumulative impacts, I would definitely recommend starting with articles by Rachel Morello-Frosch and her team out in California. Much of what I know and what many of my colleagues have learned about cumulative impacts comes out of the great work that researchers like Rachel did in California over a decade ago, when she looked at how to study and address cumulative-impacts analyses.
If that’s a little too academic, I would definitely recommend the oldies but goodies. Reading Dorceta Taylor’s Toxic Communities from 2014 is an excellent reference point for anybody interested in understanding the complex interaction of cumulative impacts and the history of land use and industrial development. I’ll also recommend Bob Bullard’s The Quest for Environmental Justice from 2005. Those books are foundational texts and get at how we get here.
Margaret Walls: I am familiar with those two books, and they are great. Thank you for those recommendations. Ana Baptista, this has been a great conversation. Thank you so much for coming on the show and giving us an introduction to cumulative impacts. We’re all going to be following this and how it plays out in policy going forward.
Ana Baptista: Thank you for inviting me.
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