Bloomberg Law
March 21, 2023, 8:43 PM

Advocates’ Equity Tool Adds Race to Help Near-Miss Communities

Dean Scott
Dean Scott

Environmental justice advocates have built their own tool adding race as a factor in locating disadvantaged communities, which could help communities that narrowly fail to meet the cutoff for attention under President Joe Biden’s Justice40 environmental equity effort.

The tool is to be used by communities to supplement the Biden administration’s Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, released last fall to help federal agencies pinpoint communities suffering from pollution for decades and getting too little government attention.

Advocates criticized Biden’s Council on Environmental Quality for excluding race as a key factor in its tool and have added the metric in their alternative version, dubbed the HBCU Climate and Environmental Justice Screening Tool.

The administration argued that using race could run afoul of civil rights laws barring discrimination, and said even without the metric other housing, income, and socioeconomic measures would likely alert agencies to the same communities.

But environmental justice groups argue that flies in the face of reality. “Race is the primary factor in determining whether communities will be faced with environmental injustice,” said David Padgett, director of the Geographic Information Sciences Laboratory at Tennessee State University, who led a team in developing the new screening tool.

“To leave race out is curious at best, and insulting at the least.”

In some instances, adding race as a criteria could ensure that near-miss communities—those for example suffering from heavy air pollution but with average income skewed by pockets of high earners—can argue they still deserve attention and funding, advocates say.

Padgett and other said their tool wasn’t built to compete with the Biden effort but as a complementary effort that communities can use in advocating for resources and applying for grants.

The new tool responds to calls by members of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and other Biden advisers “to make sure that we don’t leave communities behind,” said Robert Bullard, founder of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice.

Such screening tools “should reflect reality and not allow a tool to dictate and push out any deserving communities” from resources—including billions of dollars available for communities under the 2022 climate package and the bipartisan infrastructure package, Bullard said.

Side-by-Side Comparisons

The HBCU Climate and Environmental Justice Screening Tool was backed by environmental justice and academic groups including the Bullard Center, the Louisiana-based Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, and a consortium of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

The Biden administration developed its tool building on existing screening efforts by states and the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s meant to help agencies implement the president’s Justice40 pledge to steer 40% of the benefits of climate change, clean energy, clean transit, affordable housing, and certain other funding to low-income and other communities overburdened by pollution.

The CEQ’s tool last year identified more than 27,000 US communities as disadvantaged or partially disadvantaged. Communities were identified down to the census tract level based on various criteria, including income, socioeconomic indicators, access to indoor plumbing, and exposure to water and other pollution.

A team backed by the Bullard Center, Deep South Center, and other groups plan to train 21 Justice40 hubs—regional centers headed by community leaders—from 10 states on how to use both Biden’s tool and the new tool.

Each of those hubs is to reach out to 10 communities to help expand the expertise for local groups to seek resources under the Justice40 effort, including grants. “It is a community driven process that we have put in place to make certain that we grow the voices of community based organizations,” said Beverly Wright, founder of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice.

“It’s not the city coming in and saying, `this is the project that we want you to have'—it’s the communities as a whole coming together” and determining their priorities, she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Renee Schoof at; Zachary Sherwood at

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