The White House released on Friday the beta version of a website that shows which communities are deemed disadvantaged, and therefore in line for more federal dollars.
Neighborhoods identified by the Council on Environmental Quality’s new Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool may qualify under President
The tool assesses census tracts along eight different environmental metrics: climate change, clean energy and energy efficiency, clean transportation, affordable and sustainable housing, remediation and reduction of legacy pollution, critical clean water and waste infrastructure, health burdens, and training and workforce development.
Any tract that exceeds certain levels in at least one of those metrics, and that also exceeds a socioeconomic indicator—such as low income levels or especially low rates of high school graduates—is considered disadvantaged, according to a CEQ official who gave reporters a demonstration of the tool on Thursday evening.
The tool does not, however, include race as a factor for determining which communities are disadvantaged. The CEQ official said that decision was made to ensure the tool can withstand potential legal challenges.
“Both folks within the government and externally have made clear that we cannot be using race as an indicator to guide resource decisions, to have that highest threshold for legal defensibility,” he said.
So far CEQ isn’t aware of any potential legal challenges, according to the official.
The website differs from the EPA’s EJSCREEN mapping tool because it is aimed primarily at federal agencies and is meant to guide resources under the Justice40 plan, the official said. By contrast, EJSCREEN is designed to help agencies identify disadvantaged communities to inform how they can guide the benefits of programs including Justice40 but also others.
CEQ used recommendations from the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council to create the tool, the official said.
CEQ will take public comments on the tool for 60 days. The agency wants to hear not only from agencies but also from the public, to ensure the tool reflects the “lived realities” of different communities across the nation, according to another CEQ official. The agency plans on refining the tool over time as new data becomes available.
“The Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool is and must remain a work in progress over the months and years ahead as we continue to refine and improve it based on feedback from environmental justice communities and the public and new and improving data,” CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory said in a statement.
Separately, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is launching a study to assess existing environmental health data, geospatial data, and screening tools to find ways of improving the methodology used to develop the CEQ tool.
Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) praised the release of the tool, saying in a statement that it will “allow agencies, states, and communities to better assess where disadvantaged communities are located, and will allow for the targeting of federal benefits to environmental justice communities.”
McEachin further said he expects CEQ’s website to “provide crucial data and evidence to corroborate communities’ lived experiences and testimony.”
Biden floated the government-wide screening tool during the 2020 campaign to help communities facing “multiple stresses” of climate change, inequality, and compounding sources of pollution. In January, he issued an executive order directing CEQ to establish a tool within six months.
Jeffrey Prieto, EPA general counsel, said on Wednesday that the administration is “building upon what has already been done and trying to improve upon that, as opposed to trying to do something and starting over” in developing screening tools.
Some environmental justice advocates have grown frustrated, saying it has taken too long to develop the tools and that the location of vulnerable communities is already well-known.