Some environmental justice advocates are losing patience with White House efforts to launch a new screening tool that promises to pinpoint long-neglected and polluted communities, arguing that such vulnerable neighborhoods are well known.
Many are so obvious that they have nicknames, such as Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” or the “Diesel Death Zone"—a California community home to the Port of Los Angeles, multiple oil and asphalt refineries, and surrounded by three major freeways.
“We already know these communities,” said Anthony Rogers Wright, the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest’s director of environmental justice.
“This is not metaphysics, or calculus, or cold fusion—I think we’re over-complicating it,” he said, noting environmental justice screening tools are already in use by the Environmental Protection Agency and states such as California.
The screening tool delay is fueling broader frustrations over the pace of progress for other administration efforts, including Justice40, which aims to direct 40% of clean energy benefits to communities that have historically borne the brunt of pollution.
VIDEO: Environmental justice gained traction in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Forty years later, impacted communities still have limited legal options to combat negative environmental impacts.
Advocates say the White House and congressional Democrats need to pick up the pace on such equity promises to give their base, including minority voters crucial to President Joe Biden’s election, a reason to head to the polls during midterm elections next year.
Addressing such inequity while combating climate change is front and center as Biden and other world leaders head to the United Nations to discuss more ambitions actions on climate and the Covid-19 pandemic, including a focus on more equitable and sustainable approaches to help poorer and marginalized populations.
‘Get This Figured Out’
Biden floated the government-wide screening tool during the 2020 campaign to benefit communities facing “multiple stresses” of climate change, inequality, and multiple pollution exposures. He gave the White House Council on Environmental Quality an executive order in January to establish one within six months.
But July has come and gone. CEQ declined to say when it expects to complete the tool but pledged “additional details” in the coming weeks.
A six-month rollout of the new Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool may have been unrealistic, given that it is to be a compass to direct billions of dollars in grants, community projects, and programs to previously undeserved communities.
If Republicans take over Congress in 2022, much of Biden’s big spending plans—and perhaps even the Justice40 effort itself—would be in their crosshairs, Wright said.
“We do not have that much time. We don’t get this figured out by the midterm elections, then we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Wright said.
Getting it Right
CEQ said in a statement that it “will apply lessons learned” from EPA and state mapping and screening tools and incorporate a broader array of demographic, economic, and pollution exposure data. The agency also plans to release details in the weeks ahead on the tool’s development and steps for gathering feedback from federal agencies, communities, and other stakeholders.
Some advocates closely monitoring progress—including those on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council advising CEQ on the tool—expect an early prototype to be unveiled before year’s end.
But they’re wary of rushing the effort, which could make it vulnerable to congressional attacks if viewed as rushed to market. The tool also needs careful construction and vetting to ensure tribal and rural communities, where data is often incomplete or lacking, aren’t ignored, advocates say.
If too hurried, the CEQ tool could risk extending a legacy of ignoring the poorest rural areas such as Alabama’s Lowndes County, where residents struggle with untreated sewage from failed septic systems, said Catherine Flowers, an activist who founded the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice.
“I would rather that it take time, that it be done right, to make sure that communities that are not on the radar are not left out,” she said, and their needs shouldn’t be sacrificed “in the interest of expediency.”
Flowers served on a WHEJAC working group which urged the White House in a May report to look at dozens of demographic, health, and pollution indicators in building the screening tool, though she wasn’t speaking in her capacity as a WHEJAC member.
That report refers to a “phased” approach being weighed by the White House that would start with a “base” tool that could be continually improved and expanded over time. It also suggested encouraging local communities to fill gaps where they have their own health data.
The prospect of focusing agencies beyond EPA on vulnerable communities is largely the reason for so much interest in the new CEQ tool, advocates say.
“Why would we keep using an EPA tool and not something more expansive, to ensure that we are covering all segments of the population” who may benefit from more resources, said Dana Johnson, director of the federal policy office for WE Act for Environmental Justice.
“Let’s look holistically at indicators that maybe we haven’t been looking at, like areas that have been incubators for entrepreneurship by people of color” which could help direct resources into community-based projects that would leverage those efforts, Johnson said.
Array of Indicators
CEQ’s screening tool would build off EPA’s mapping, known as EJSCREEN, which cross references environmental data—roughly a dozen indicators, from air toxics and ozone exposure data to proximity to Superfund sites—with demographic data. The results provide snapshots of which communities have been exposed to disproportionate amounts of pollution for decades.
The CEQ tool is to go further than EJSCREEN, focusing on communities hardest hit by pollution but also those suffering from economic challenges, lack of health services, or largely overlooked in efforts to boost resiliency to climate change impacts such as rising sea level.
The Biden administration has taken some steps while building its governmentwide tool to put disadvantaged communities front and center for federal agencies. It launched Justice40 pilot programs in July directing 21 agencies to refocus specific programs, such as steering EPA drinking water grants to communities most in need.
“We can begin immediately directing investments to benefit disadvantaged communities,"Cedric Richmond, senior adviser and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement told a Congressional Black Caucus forum Sept. 13. “But we know that we can’t get it right if we can’t track and measure our progress.”
Richmond said $50 million provided under the American Rescue Plan Covid-19 recovery package will help by better monitoring poor air quality in disadvantaged communities.
Other administration priorities, such as a Civilian Climate Corps in Democrats’ $3.5 trillion reconciliation measure now before Congress and modeled on the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, “will be focused on equity,” he said. It will “employ people from our communities, offering training and new skills to start new careers, helping to protect our communities from the dangers of living in a world that is already suffering the effects of climate change.”
Minorities are far more likely to live in areas most threatened by rising sea level and extreme temperatures, according to an EPA study released in September.