The White House is close to finalizing its first attempt to rate the progress of federal agencies on their environmental justice initiatives, with advocates pushing for a tool that will be unbiased, transparent, and data-focused.
The environmental justice scorecard is envisioned as a publicly accessible tool to gauge progress in tackling environmental impacts in communities already hard hit by pollution, including low-income communities, communities of color, and tribal nations.
The White House Council on Environmental Quality is expected to unveil the first scorecard in the coming weeks, according to a person familiar with the plans.
The 2023 scorecard will detail progress and activities agencies have undertaken since 2021, establishing a baseline for their efforts to measure future progress, and it will be updated and improved in future years, according to CEQ. The agency plans to make the scorecard available online.
The first scorecard is expected to include measurements in three categories:
- Regulatory, enforcement and other efforts focused on reducing burdens and harms in disadvantaged communities, according to CEQ’s August request for public comments;
- Progress in meeting President Joe Biden’s Justice40 pledge to steer 40% of the benefits of clean energy and certain other dollars to vulnerable communities;
- And how far agencies have gone to change decisionmaking to reflect communities’ priorities, perspectives, “and lived experiences.”
More Transparency Urged
Environmental justice advocates, environmental groups, and congressional Democrats have urged the administration to be as transparent as possible in launching the scorecard. Those suggestions include making it easily accessible online and spanning the digital divide by putting hard copies in libraries and community centers.
The scorecard also should “engage the communities it is intended to help” and be disseminated widely in multiple languages, congressional Democrats including Rep. Cori Bush (Mo.) and Sens. Ed Markey (Mass.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), and Tom Carper (Del.), the Senate environment panel chairman, wrote in a Jan. 26 letter.
The administration should ensure a broad array of data is used to measure progress, including data provided by the same disadvantaged communities the scorecard is designed to help, they wrote. Such data could include measures of environmental quality, access to quality and affordable housing, energy, and transportation, safe drinking water, evidence of displacement, and food security, the letter said.
Many of the nearly 50 groups commenting on the scorecard effort also called for moving beyond available data to gathering data from the communities most effected by decades of pollution.
But some questioned whether the executive branch can objectively rate its own progress and called for an independent review.
The Pennsylvania-based Center for Coalfield Justice said in comments to CEQ that the Government Accountability Office, which has long assessed the federal government’s overall performance, should be given the responsibility “to conduct the scorecard to give an unbiased, accurate assessment” of agencies’ environmental justice efforts.
As currently envisioned, the executive branch “is creating a scorecard to judge its own performance,” the center said, which could lead to biased results.
Measuring federal progress in reducing “harms and burdens” in such communities should include a review of the number of new permits for polluting facilities and other operations issued in those communities; the number of operating permits for such facilities; measurements of air and water pollution; and cancer and asthma rates, the center said.
Those metrics should be compared to data “from non-environmental justice communities,” which would provide a measure of the disproportionate impacts such communities bear, it said.
Other groups, including the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, have argued that CEQ should ensure the scorecard takes a broader look at the impacts of agency funding that could exacerbate inequities, focusing beyond funding and programs under Biden’s Justice40 effort.
Some western states have urged the administration to consider impacts on rural communities that have suffered but may be overlooked.
Utah is concerned that CEQ’s focus on “current and historic environmental injustice” won’t address disruption that small, rural communities have experienced as a result of federal land management decisions, wrote Redge Johnson, executive director for the state’s public lands policy coordinating office.
“Numerous communities throughout the state positively should qualify as ‘underserved by critical infrastructure and services’ and have often been shut out of important decision making that negatively impacts their well-being,” Johnson wrote. In recent decades, Utah communities have seen jobs losses and other effects of federal decisions “adversely affecting logging, mining, and other extractive industries.”
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