Cumulative Impacts: Why Environmental Protections Need to Take Them into Account

November 22, 2022 | 2:45 pm
polluting refineryPatrick Hendry/Unsplash
Kristie Ellickson
Kendall Fellow

When I began working as a state government scientist in Minnesota, I was motivated to advance environmental protections that prevent against pollutants from crossing from one environmental medium to another, such as from the air to water. But I had no idea I’d have the hands-on opportunity to combine cross media and social justice concepts to help implement a policy aimed at advancing environmental justice (EJ) and more inclusive decisionmaking.

In 2009, I was assigned to develop a method to implement a Minnesota statute and was fortunate to experience directly what imperfect but still more holistic and community-informed regulatory protections could look like. I learned that the implementation of a statute requiring an analysis to address cumulative impacts in environmental permitting was possible to achieve. I still consider that initial work a highlight of my career so far.

After leading, conducting, and reviewing toxics monitoring and modeling studies at the state level for many years, I am thrilled to continue this work from a new perspective at the Union of Concerned Scientists as a Kendall Fellow. My research in this position will inform integrating cumulative impacts into regulatory decisionmaking at the federal level.

What are cumulative impacts?

To understand cumulative impacts, we can use the analogy of a doctor’s appointment. I might go to a clinic for a sore throat, receive a quick strep test, and then be sent home with antibiotics. That’s essentially the way most environmental protections work, addressing one issue at a time. The approach works adequately only if I have access to healthcare in the first place, have no underlying conditions that might signal additional complications, was fairly certain I had only been exposed to strep, hadn’t had recurring strep infections, and didn’t have other issues to treat like a sprained ankle and frequent headaches.

By contrast, a regulatory decision informed by cumulative impacts would require the doctor to take the equivalent of a patient’s full history. Treatment would be coordinated to make sure that a patient doesn’t get sent to four different clinics; medication interactions would be considered, and it would include a broad enough series of tests to make sure the patient could leave the appointment as healthy as possible.

To continue the analogy, in environmental decisionmaking we often have a lot of evidence that the conditions we see involve more than a simple strep throat infection. We need to take a broader, more systemic approach, to adequately treat the whole patient, and avoid more severe illness and repeated clinic visits.

At the root of the problem lies the fact that decades of racially discriminatory policies and practices from the federal to local level continue to influence where sources of pollution are located as well as their proximity to people of color. You have likely heard of one of these policies known as redlining. In the 1940s, the US government negotiated maps with local real estate markets to inform mortgage lending practices. These maps marked areas with larger proportions of people of color as more “hazardous” (often in red, hence the name redlining). Even today, these policies continue to impact zoning and permitting decisions and are at least partially responsible for placing so many industrial sources of pollution and major roadways in close proximity to communities of color. In many areas of the country, these communities still exist and are sometimes referred to as sacrifice zones.

US regulatory protections have not yet evolved to such an extent as to alleviate these cumulative pollutant exposures. Today, environmental permitting of facilities may consider multiple sources of pollution but for only one pollutant and one environmental medium (air, water, land) at a time. Very few environmental regulations consider systemic factors in communities that make them more susceptible to environmental harms, even though there is a robust and growing body of scientific evidence to justify such protections. A few examples of this evidence can be found here, here, here, and here.

The bottom line is this: Sources of environmental pollution are not evenly spaced and they do not operate in isolation; similarly, people are not exposed to one pollutant at a time. Our environmental regulatory system should reflect these realities.

The New School has done extensive research on the proposed and enacted cumulative impacts policies in the United States. They provide an excellent introduction to the cumulative impacts concept, here.

EPA has recently pulled these and other concepts into the following definition “the totality of exposures to combinations of chemical and nonchemical stressors and their effects on health, well-being, and quality of life outcomes,” thereby suggesting that both quantitative and qualitative data should be considered to inform a decision. An environmental regulatory decision that considers cumulative impacts can include multiple chemicals, exposure to stressors that aren’t chemicals, multiple sources of pollution, multiple pathways of exposure (i.e. ingestion, inhalation, skin contact), as well as sensitivity and susceptibility to environmental harm from systemic factors that negatively impact community health. Today, regulatory authority over environmental and public health stressors is divided among agencies at the federal, state, and local levels of government. But even though some stressors might exist outside of one agency’s regulatory authority, they still influence the level of environmental protection a community needs.

Listening to the EJ movement

Looking at the distribution of environmental pollution in the United States and where it is causing the most harm, it is clear that we urgently need to integrate the framework of cumulative impacts into our regulatory system of environmental protection. We need a progression towards an environmental regulatory system that is informed by what’s already in a neighborhood and the existing health of the neighbors.

We know that communities throughout the United States are overburdened by multiple and varied sources of environmental pollution. Because of past and currently perpetuated racially biased systems these communities are disproportionately Black, Indigenous, People Of Color (BIPOC), linguistically isolated, and low-income. For decades, EJ communities have been calling for environmental regulatory protections that are cumulative to reverse and decrease disproportionate impacts. And they have been providing data to support this call. The EJ scholars Robert Bullard and Glenn Johnson, describe the paradigm of protection informed by EJ as  “a holistic approach to formulating environmental health policies and regulations; developing risk reduction strategies for multiple, cumulative, and synergistic risks; ensuring public health; enhancing public participation in environmental decision making; promoting community empowerment…

Significant progress

While there is much more to be done, EJ and community groups, as well as local and state units of government have made significant progress towards a system that addresses cumulative impacts. California developed a program called CalEnviroScreen that integrates multiple environmental and health burdens to inform resource allocation. The Minnesota Legislature requires a “cumulative levels and effects analysis” in the permitting process that grew out of work by grassroots and neighborhood organizations in the Phillips communities in Minneapolis. This state-mandated analysis connects proposed air emissions to potential human health risks and then to other environmental health data with similar potential human health endpoints.

The past several years have seen a number of important developments in the area of cumulative impacts at both the state and municipal level. Responding to decades of tireless and strategic advocacy, the New Jersey legislature passed a statewide Environmental Justice Law that requires the state’s department of environmental protection (NJDEP) to evaluate environmental and public health impacts of specified facilities on overburdened communities when reviewing permit applications. The law also strengthens NJDEP’s regulatory authority to deny environmental permits if a proposal will have a disproportionately negative impact.

Early in 2021, the state of New York passed a law similar to New Jersey’s to reduce cumulative impacts in overburdened communities. Massachusetts passed a 2050 Roadmap Bill to address climate change with an EJ amendment that requires summaries of steps taken to improve economic, environmental, and public health impacts on environmental justice communities; and, this past year, the state of Colorado passed the Environmental Justice Act which formed an EJ Board, provided funding for EJ, and requires “disproportionate impacts screening” for compliance and enforcement. Several cities have also passed ordinances (Newark, NJ, Albuquerque, NM, and Wilmington, DE) related to EJ and cumulative impacts. And momentum continues to build.

All communities deserve adequate health and safety protections

In January 2021, the Biden administration published an executive order prioritizing more equitable decisionmaking. It states: “Government should pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.” This EO creates a government-wide EJ approach and requires every agency to issue racial equity action plans. EPA’s plan, released in April 2022 includes a new strategy to develop “a comprehensive framework for considering cumulative impacts in relevant EPA decisions and to operationalize that framework in the agency’s programs and activities”. More recently, EPA’s Office of Research and Development fleshed this out further in a final draft of its Recommendations for Cumulative Impacts Research, which spells out existing knowledge and needed research, although it does not include a clear timeline of when steps will be taken to address cumulative impacts in overburdened communities.

The tools are available now to implement a regulatory system that addresses at least some aspects of cumulative impacts. We must continue to urge agencies to listen to their EJ advisors such as those at the National Environmental Advisory Council (NEJAC) and the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC) as well as to external EJ experts to make sure we build a framework for estimating and acting on cumulative exposures to overburdened and underserved people that takes into account and considers community knowledge and expertise.

As we do so, decisionmakers should embrace the area of science-based policies that include cumulative impacts as a vital tool that can begin to help address and reverse longstanding health inequities.