This year’s National Brownfields Conference in Detroit, Michigan, was notable. The evening before the conference began, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) hosted an ‘Environmental Justice’ caucus in which over 150 people from both the public and private sectors came together to learn more about what Environmental Justice is and how it informs our work in economic development efforts.
USEPA defines Environmental Justice (often called ‘EJ’) 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.” We’ll achieve this goal when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment to live, learn, and work.
Distilled to its core, EJ is a call to action for all individuals and entities engaged in helping sustain and grow their communities. It posits that multiple demographics (including but not limited to people of color, inhabitants of rural areas, and people with less access to education and well-paying jobs) are disproportionately subject to harmful impacts from exposure to toxins and pollutants. Accordingly, it is incumbent upon those engaged with those populations to pay heed to find ways to mitigate or reduce those exposures.
EPA formally established the Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights on October 6, 2022, and since that time, has engaged over 200 people across the agency to perform tasks specifically addressing EJ, including “processing grant applications from communities with environmental justice concerns, reaching out to residents to understand their concerns, and enforcing civil rights.” The EPA also established the Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Grantmaking (EJ TCGM) program in direct response to two Executive Orders issued by the Biden administration (EO 14008 and 13985) and will soon award ~$550 million to 11 distinct entities (which must be community-based nonprofits or partnerships between community-based nonprofits and either Tribal government or institutions of higher education) to spearhead more inclusive and easily accessible resources/support for communities seeking EPA funding to address EJ concerns.
EPA also established 16 technical assistance centers across the nation under the EJ Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers Program (EJ TCTAC), aimed at “providing technical assistance, training, and related support to communities with environmental justice concerns and their partners. The services provided will include training and assistance on writing grant proposals, navigating federal systems such as Grants.gov and SAM.gov, effectively managing grant funds, community engagement, meeting facilitation, and translation and interpretation services for limited English-speaking participants.”
Furthermore, the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act created the Environmental and Climate Justice Block Grant program in section 138 of the Clean Air Act (CAA). It provided EPA with $2.8 billion in grant funding for the program for projects to benefit communities with environmental justice concerns.
All told billions of dollars are currently available to communities that seek to spur environmental cleanup and revitalization efforts. SCS specializes in helping communities connect with this funding (even providing in-house Brownfields grant writing services) and has a proven track record of forming successful partnerships which result in timely and meaningful rejuvenation projects.
Two of the projects SCS teamed on this past year are awardees of the EPA’s prestigious 2023 Phoenix Award. The first of such projects, performed in EPA Region 6, involved the restoration of the historic First National Bank Building in downtown Oklahoma City, OK. This project created a mixed-use space, including apartments in the heart of the bustling business district, to help revive a struggling downtown and create jobs for residents. The second project, performed in EPA Region 9, provided affordable housing in San Diego, CA, and included upgrades to storm drains, water and sewer lines, underground powerlines, and streetscape improvements, significantly enhancing area infrastructure.
In both these projects and countless other projects performed under federal and state Brownfields programs, SCS is a trusted partner providing technical expertise and conscientious approaches to community engagement and planning that align with EJ protocols. SCS is a Foundational Member and Advisor of the Center for Creative Land Recycling (CCLR), which aims to turn abandoned land into thriving spaces that serve communities meaningfully.
This year’s Brownfields Conference theme was “Sustainable Communities Start Here,” in sync with SCS’s long culture and mission of achieving sustainability through holistic processes. The most successful remediation projects are when all stakeholders have a voice and redevelopment efforts are thoughtfully, creatively, and deliberately planned and implemented.
About the Author: Rachel McShane, LEP, has over 15 years of experience in environmental due diligence projects (Phase I, II and III Environmental Site Assessments) as well as Brownfields redevelopment, risk-based corrective action, and remediation projects. She is also familiar with National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) environmental assessments, vapor investigations and mitigation, radon, asbestos, and lead based paint surveys, and leachate monitoring/solid waste management. You may reach her at or via LinkedIn.