This op-ed was originally published in The Hill.
“Data drives policy, and the lack of data drives policy,” according to former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) environmental justice official Mustafa Santiago Ali. This crucial insight succinctly encapsulates one of the fundamental disconnects between the Clean Air Act and environmental justice.
A bill pending in Congress called the Public Health Air Quality Act aims to bridge that divide by significantly enhancing our nation’s air pollution monitoring infrastructure and improving community access to monitoring data.
Lying at the core of the legislation is a concept called “information justice.” Information justice starts from the recognition that policy-relevant uncertainty is an inescapable feature of environmental decision-making. Agencies like the EPA simply will never have perfect information when deciding whether and how to address a particular pollution risk.
Critically, such uncertainty entails certain costs in the form of suboptimal regulatory policies. While the EPA cannot fully eliminate those costs, it can determine how they are distributed by how it chooses to act in the face of such uncertainty. Information justice seeks to ensure that these costs are distributed as fairly as possible. In practice, that means adopting a default rule that shifts these costs to corporate polluters — both because they benefit from harmful actions (in the form of profits) and they are in a better position to reduce uncertainty by obtaining new information about the potential harms of their pollution.
The essential problem that information justice seeks to address is that, as currently designed and implemented, many of our regulatory institutions are oriented against the fair distribution of uncertainty-related costs. And this, in turn, incentivizes polluters and their political allies to obstruct efforts to do things like obtain new information about a particular air pollutant’s exposure routes and health impacts.