Water policy & environmental justice in the Biden Administration

Updated: Feb 22, 2021

In the coming months, the Biden Administration will likely seek to build on its campaign pledge to address environmental justice interests. As the President’s campaign plan stated, he is committed to:

“[Standing] up to the abuse of power by polluters who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities. Vulnerable communities are disproportionately impacted by the climate emergency and pollution. The Biden Administration will take action against fossil fuel companies and other polluters who put profit over people and knowingly harm our environment and poison our communities’ air, land, and water, or conceal information regarding potential environmental and health risks. The Biden plan will ensure that communities across the country from Flint, Michigan to Harlan, Kentucky to the New Hampshire Seacoast have access to clean, safe drinking water. And he’ll make sure the development of solutions is an inclusive, community-driven process.

Businesses, trade associations, and other organizations that fail to plan for and implement proactive strategies to engage on the paradigm of environmental justice may find challenges in obtaining final and timely permits and remediation agreements. This should be of particular concern for facilities seeking or possessing Clean Water Act or Safe Drinking Water Act permits or other final agency actions.

To effectively engage across the environmental justice paradigm, permit applicants must have, among other matters, an awareness of the potential environmental impacts to the communities surrounding a proposed project (e.g., a new facility). Residents may possess a heightened awareness of and sensitivity to the historical environmental impacts from facilities existing within their community. Additionally, organizations should proactively communicate with regulators and community stakeholders on both procedural and substantive issues of concern. Early, clear, and consistent communication will enable challenging issues to surface early in the process enabling a positive resolution for all parties.

As background, the United States throughout its history has identified and addressed claims of economic and racial discrimination, including matters of voting, education, housing, and banking. More recently, the domain of environmental protection has been subject to claims of economic and racial discrimination.

The term “environmental justice” addresses the fair and equitable distribution of the benefits and burdens of the environmental protection laws within the United States. Environmental justice encompasses both substantive and procedural aspects of the implementation and enforcement of environmental protection laws. For example, environmental justice is concerned with the economic and racial aspects of the permitting, compliance, enforcement, and remediation activities of governmental agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Interior, and the U.S Army Corps of Engineers.

In 1994, then-President Clinton issued Executive Order No. 12898, directing certain federal agencies to incorporate environmental justice considerations into their activities. The U.S. EPA was designated as the lead agency for this effort. Over the past 25 years, the federal government has sought to meaningfully address environmental justice. Historically, environmental justice focused on hazardous waste permitting and remediation (e.g., RCRA and CERCLA). Today, the focus of environmental justice has pivoted to water, including permitting, compliance, and enforcement under both the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Matthew Klein

Senior Advisor

Matthew Klein is the Founder & CEO of Aqualaurus Group and is a Senior Advisor to Dawson & Associates. He is the former president of a private equity-based drinking water and wastewater utility and served as Executive Director of one of the U.S.’ largest public drinking water systems. He has served as both a senior environmental regulator and a senior utilities regulator. He is a member of the American Water Works Association, American Bar Association, and the Association of Professional Futurists.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dawson & Associates.