An environmental justice center at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health has issued a highly-critical “scorecard” grading nine state agencies on their practices and policies for protecting the environment and prioritizing services to communities disproportionately harmed by environmental racism.

Only the Maryland environment and natural resources departments received grades as high as C or B in 2019, 2020 and 2021, while the Public Service Commission received straight Ds and the other six agencies received Ds and Fs. For a scorecard on which not a single A grade was awarded, the state’s agriculture and housing & community development departments and the Maryland Energy Administration received straight Fs.

The Environmental Justice Agency Scorecard, released last week by the Center for Community Engagement, Environmental Justice, and Health at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health, graded the agencies on five performance indicators.

Those indicators include establishment of environmental justice offices and policies to protect the environment; prioritizing low-income and communities of colors disproportionately harmed by climate change and pollution; building environmental literacy; and working proactively to counter environmental racism.

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“There needs to be an executive order from the governor’s office providing some guidance on how environmental justice is integrated into the strategic plans implemented by each agency,” said Dr. Sacoby Wilson, a professor of applied environmental health and the center’s director.

In compiling the scorecard, researchers collected and analyzed publicly available data and then communicated with agencies about their scores, adjusting them in response to the feedback and additional materials that the agencies provided. They looked at the agencies’ performance over a three-year period, from 2019 through 2021.

Based on the scorecard, the state’s primary environmental agencies — the Maryland Department of the Environment and Maryland Department of Natural Resources — earned Cs in 2019 and improved to Bs in 2020 and 2021, after making progress on equity and justice issues in their planning.

Jay Apperson, deputy director for the MDE’s Office of Communication, said that the department has been partnering with Wilson for the past two years and “engaging communities and conducting outreach to communities with EJ concerns.”

Apperson said the department has developed a new EJ screening tool “to support compliance, permitting and outreach/engagement.” The agency will review the scorecard, he said, “for new ideas to improve equity and justice as we execute our mission with oversight and engagement with federal partners and the Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities.”

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The office of Gov. Larry Hogan did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The Public Service Commission, the agency that regulates matters involving public and private utilities and ratepayers’ interests, wasn’t able to improve on its D grade over the three-year period. Both the Maryland transportation and health departments received Fs for 2019 and 2020, climbing to Ds in 2021.

Tori Leonard, the PSC’s director of communications, said Wednesday that the commission did not even know until last year that it was being graded and was not contacted for input.

“Once we learned about the scorecard, Chairman Jason Stanek and several members of our team met with [Wilson] and his graduate assistant to better understand their interests and shared with them a wealth of information about how environmental justice considerations are embedded in the Commission’s activities,” she said. “[W]e have since added an EJ fact sheet to our website.”

The survey found that some agencies performed well in one category but received low overall scores. “For example, some agencies were proactive in their EJ work, but their plans and progress were not transparent and available to the general public. Another commonly missing component was the lack of an EJ representative and/or office,” the center’s report on the scorecard said.

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The agencies collectively scored the highest in 2021 on prioritizing communities affected by environmental racism, making it the most improved criterion over the study period. This was the lowest-scoring category across the board in 2019 and 2020.

The report recommended that each state agency develop an EJ strategic plan, provide anti-racism training for employees and introduce policies promoting restorative action. It also stressed the need to “directly acknowledge” environmental racism and, just as importantly, emphasized the need to implement the Biden administration’s Justice40 recommendations at the state level. Justice40 calls for allocating at least 40 percent of new federal funding for climate change and environmental protection to environmental justice communities.

Disproportionate exposure to environmental harms in communities of color and low-income communities has been well documented in Maryland. “African Americans in Maryland are more likely to die from heart disease, cancer, and stroke. African Americans in the state are also 1.1 times more likely to suffer from asthma, and 2.3 times more likely to die from asthma, compared to whites,” a 2015 study by the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic said.

The study concluded that the state’s efforts over the last 15 years produced “very little progress in addressing environmental disparities in communities of color and low-income communities.”

The EJ scorecard for Maryland agencies coincided with a new initiative by the Environmental Protection Agency, which last week announced a new Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights in line with President Joe Biden’s commitment to address legacy environmental racism through federal investments.

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Still, the $2 trillion recently authorized by Congress for infrastructure funding may not end up benefiting the communities under Justice40, according to a recent 50-state survey of state policies that affect how the money is allocated.

Released by the nonprofit Lawyers for Good Government, the survey found that only 31% of states had defined “disadvantaged community” in the climate or equity space to better focus their programs. “Only 25 percent of states have an active map identifying ‘disadvantaged communities,’” the survey said, and only 17% have existing or proposed guidelines related to implementing Biden’s Justice40 initiative.

Federal agencies have started to roll out guidelines that require state and local governments to identify and prioritize underserved communities, the survey said. “This process requires states to not only possess knowledge of disadvantaged communities within their boundaries, but also to undertake meaningful community engagement before project lists are finalized and applications are submitted,” the survey said.

The survey rated Maryland among better-performing states with an established Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities, and a dedicated infrastructure manager at the governor’s office to coordinate federal funding. Maryland lawmakers earlier this year passed the Climate Solutions Now Act, which provides a comprehensive definition of “overburdened” and “underserved” communities to receive targeted benefits from climate-related funding, mitigation and adaptation efforts.

The EJ scorecard recognized that MDE, along with DNR, did a better job of addressing equity and justice concerns and gave each a B grade for 2021.

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The scorecard did not attempt to assess the regulatory performance of MDE, which was roundly criticized for poor performance in 2021 by the Environmental Protection Agency, environmental advocates and some state legislators.

In one 2021 report, the EPA estimated that MDE needed 187% more full-time employees and 93% more funding to ensure that the public has access to safe drinking water.

Tyler Abbott, MDE’s chief of staff, acknowledged the understaffing and inadequate funding in testimony before state lawmakers in March. ”We estimate that there will be an additional 10,500 inspections needed to be performed yearly by MDE staff,” he said, adding that about 91 additional staff positions and about 55 vehicles would be needed to carry out the inspections. MDE has estimated it would cost $9 million to improve staffing for inspections and to clear a growing pile of expired permits, some of which lapsed years ago.

Maryland Agencies' EJ struggle (Courtesy of Inside Climate News)

In February testimony supporting legislation calling on MDE to step up enforcement actions, state Del. Sara Love, a Montgomery County Democrat, said that 42% of pollution-control permits for municipal sewage plants, factory wastewater treatment facilities and other sources of pollution had expired, but were allowed to continue because the agency could not process timely renewals. In some cases, the permits had expired 10 and 15 years earlier, with scant inspections and compliance actions that failed to check frequent violations.

The legislation — HB649, which became law on July 1 — required MDE to submit a report to the governor and the General Assembly by Oct. 1 identifying the number of employees the agency would need to clear the backlog of permits continuing beyond their expiration, and ensure timely renewals. By Dec. 31, the agency should request additional funding for the staff identified in the October report.

The federal initiative will push state environmental agencies such as MDE to do more on equity and justice and initiate steps similar to what the EPA has undertaken, Wilson said. At the moment, Maryland has no plan of action to integrate equity and justice across the executive branch of state government, which is why it received such poor grades on the scorecard, he said.

Wilson said that Hogan, a Republican preparing to leave office after his second four-year term, "has had no interest in environmental justice, and in fact sidelined equity concerns by not holding the agencies accountable, or providing the conditions for the state agencies to do more about justice and equity concerns.”

Most agencies do not even have proper information about the programs on their websites, he added, making it difficult for the communities to get basic facts or engage with officials. “There’s a lack of transparency,” he said. “To me that denotes that you’re not serious about environmental justice.”

Wilson said plans are afoot to improve the scorecard in future years with ratings of agencies on their regulatory records and enforcement actions to better understand the implications for environmental justice. “If you’re going to advance and promote justice and equity in the state of Maryland, you have to have environmental justice in your strategic plan and an EJ office,” he said. “You cannot do a serious investment in these areas without having that type of infrastructure.”

Aman Azhar is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who covers environmental justice for Inside Climate News with a focus on the Baltimore-Maryland area.

This story is published in partnership with Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. Sign up for the ICN newsletter here.

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