Lawmakers are considering a proposal that would require the state Department of Environmental Protection to include marginalized communities and those who feel the impact of climate change first and most in its environmental policy decisions.

The bill includes funding to hire a public service coordinator, two law clerks and a geographic information system coordinator and pay facilitator services, travel expenses, facility rentals and meeting expenses.

Advocates like the idea of codifying environmental justice in state statute, but say the bill doesn’t go far enough. They want to expand the definition of marginalized and frontline groups, require the state to fairly distribute funding to them, and require the state to address their concerns.

“For this bill to be effective, we need to make it significantly stronger,” said Jacquelyn Elliot, a 30-year environmental advocate. This bill “moves in the direction for all Maine’s citizens to share benefits and burdens of environmental policy decisions more equitably. It is an essential beginning.”

Some business groups worry the bill could slow the state regulatory process. The extra notification process could delay permits, they say, including those required to launch the renewable energy projects needed to meet the state’s ambitious greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.

“We already have a rigorous and thorough permitting process in Maine, and anything that adds more challenges for projects to come online is of concern to the business community,” said Benjamin Lucas, senior government relations specialist with the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.


The bill, L.D. 1621, was introduced Monday by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland. This bill would resurrect the DEP environmental justice mandate and the $600,000 in notification funding that was stripped from another bill during last year’s end-of-session appropriations process.

In her testimony, Ross insisted the bill would put no additional burden on those seeking state permits.

Speaker of the House Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, pounds the gavel during a session on January 4, at the Maine State House in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“It simply provides the (DEP) the directive and resources to broaden their own administrative procedures in a way that improves regulatory participation and strengthens public engagement with the most vulnerable affected communities,” Ross said.

Last Friday, President Biden signed an executive order requiring every federal agency to quantify the cumulative effects of pollution and climate change on marginalized communities and develop plans to address their disproportionately high impact.

In 2020, Biden made environmental justice a centerpiece of his environmental agenda, setting a goal of directing 40 percent of the benefits from federal investment in clean energy, flood protection, cleanup, and infrastructure benefits to marginalized and frontline communities.

Maine and New Hampshire are the only New England states that have yet to specifically define who qualifies as an environmental justice population. Currently, Vermont’s definition is the most expansive, covering an estimated 55 percent of its population.


The Union of Concerned Scientists urged the environment committee to broaden the definition of marginalized and frontline communities to make them more inclusive, and require DEP to create an environmental justice advisory council and community engagement plan.

The legislation should help those underserved by state infrastructure, markets and laws; who lack access to environmental benefits; and are overburdened by pollution, infrastructure and climate impacts, said Steve Clemmer, the group’s director of energy research.

The definition should be based on demographic factors like race, income and limited English proficiency, he said. Some of the states that have environmental justice provisions in their laws, as well as the federal government, use census data by zip code to determine who qualifies.

The state Department of Environmental Protection told the Environment and Natural Resources Committee Monday that it supports the idea, but asked lawmakers to remove the definitions from the proposed legislation and leave those up to departmental rulemaking.

That will make it easier for the department to change those when necessary to keep up with evolving federal definitions, the department said. But environmental advocates claim that adopting a state-specific definition would not hurt Maine’s ability to qualify for federal grants.

The committee will consider the merits of the bill at an upcoming work session.

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