The White House on Wednesday sought to highlight its first year of efforts in tackling environmental inequities, even as advocates continue to bemoan slow progress on tools to measure progress and the vacuum triggered by the recent loss of a top environmental justice official.
Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said CEQ’s environmental justice team has grown to six in the last year and is “fiercely determined” to ensure there isn’t a loss of momentum after the departure weeks ago of Cecilia Martinez, CEQ’s first-ever senior director for environmental justice.
“It is hard to believe that a little over a year ago, CEQ did not have a single employee who focused on environmental justice,” Mallory told members of the White House Environmental Justice Council at the first day of a two-day meeting.
Mallory said CEQ expects “very soon” to add to its environmental justice team, but didn’t offer a timeline for filling the vacant top adviser post.
She highlighted efforts launched by a Biden executive order issued a year ago Thursday, from a Justice40 initiative still in the works to big funding gains to clean up Superfund sites and either launching or strengthening environmental justice efforts at agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Agriculture Department, and the General Services Administration.
But she also cited unfinished business. That includes Biden’s vow to update a Clinton-era environmental justice executive order; a screening tool agencies can use to better focus on communities are disproportionately threatened by pollution; and a new scorecard to hold agencies accountable in how they are helping marginalized communities bearing the brunt of pollution.
“We still have a lot of work ahead of us,” Mallory said.
Environmental justice advocates said they in many cases are waiting for those changes to benefit the most vulnerable communities. More attention is needed to basics, said Ruth Santiago, a WHEJAC member from Puerto Rico, including more accurate and plentiful air pollution monitors to ensure power plants and industrial facilities “don’t overburden” communities already bearing the brunt of pollution.
Video: The Biden Administration has pledged to make environmental justice a priority. Here’s a look at the limited legal options impacted communities have to combat negative environmental impacts.
Screening Tool Progress
An early version of the Climate and Economic Justice Screening tool, drawn from an existing EPA tool, is under review by environmental justice advocates and experts on the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council.
A beta version is slated to be released for public review and comment early this year, according to a White House fact sheet highlighting environmental justice efforts in Biden’s first year.
Mallory also noted that CEQ is looking to “restore community safeguards” to ensure communities have a voice in environmental impact reviews required under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Other administration officials, including Assistant Secretary for Health Rachel Levine and Arsenio Mataka, senior adviser for health equity and climate at the Department of Health and Human Services, touted ongoing environmental justice efforts.
The administration isn’t taking its “eye off” the Covid-19 pandemic and response efforts, “but we must recognize the stress on our health system that climate change” is causing, Levine said.
Extreme weather worsened by climate change has created hurdles to Covid-19 efforts “by shutting down testing” and vaccination sites and further stressing health care facilities, she said.