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Environmental justice headlines annual Audubon Environmental Policy Summit

Gerardo Acosta gives his keynote address at the 2023 Audubon Environmental Policy Summit
Maggie Ryan
Little Rock Public Radio
Gerardo Acosta gives his keynote address at the 2023 Audubon Environmental Policy Summit at Hendrix College in Conway Thursday.

Environmental justice headlined the annual Arkansas Environmental Policy Summit on Thursday. Climate-focused activists, educators, and students gathered at Hendrix College to learn about the path to a healthier environment.

Glen Hooks, director of policy at Audubon Delta, welcomed the crowd by detailing how lower-income communities are usually the ones most impacted by environmental injustice.

“Our country’s polluting power plants, landfills, chemical companies and other dangerous activities are disproportionately located in areas without very much economic and political power,” Hooks said. “We’re not putting a coal-fired power plant in a wealthy neighborhood, are we?”

Hooks said environmental justice needs to center people that have been most impacted by pollution. These groups are often dealing with negative health conditions as a result of living in areas with poor air quality and constant exposure to harsh chemicals.

Economics also plays a key role in environmental justice discussions. Clean energy alternatives often come with a large price tag, even if they’re proven to save money in the long run.

Hooks said the transition to clean energy needs to be done in a way that benefits communities without causing a financial burden to those who can’t afford an overhaul of new appliances and technology.

“It means we make some amends,” he said. “It means that we take extra steps to ensure that our most economically challenged communities can install solar panels and make their homes more energy efficient. Let’s do this the right way.”

Gerardo Acosta is the staff director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 6, which spans from New Mexico to Arkansas and Louisiana. He says the EPA is looking for ways to meet the needs of disadvantaged communities.

Historically, he said, environmental justice efforts have overlooked these people. Now the EPA wants to change that narrative as they move forward.

“In particular we have emphasized the value of establishing a community-level baseline and considering the full impact of these regulations,” Acosta said in his keynote address.

One of these approaches is the creation of Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers, or TCTACS. Acosta says these centers get local communities involved with environmental justice.

There are two centers in Region 6, the closest to Arkansas being the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in New Orleans. Acosta says the natural state is currently underrepresented in the pool of applicants, but he hopes to see more Arkansas-based proposals in the future.

Maggie Ryan is a reporter and local host of All Things Considered for Little Rock Public Radio.