The time is ripe to bring a wave of environmental justice advisers into federal agencies to ensure the incoming Biden administration makes good on its pledge to improve racial equity across government, advocates and attorneys say.
Placing such advisers in high-level positions, with direct access to Cabinet secretaries and agency administrators, would elevate issues such as pollution that disproportionately affect low-income and minority populations, observers say.
They also say environmental justice advisers would help agencies—from the Transportation Department to the Small Business Administration—ensure their policies don’t hurt vulnerable communities but also don’t leave them behind on Biden priority issues such as clean energy, climate solutions, and big-ticket infrastructure packages.
“This is really part of the evolution of environmental justice,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice adviser for more than two decades who now heads the National Wildlife Federation’s efforts on the issue.
Attorneys—including those who help navigate the complex process of environmental permitting—are watching closely, and somewhat warily, the idea of slotting environmental justice advisers across federal agencies.
“I think it’s absolutely the way you get those issues to the forefront of decision-making and have people thinking about them in all the departments—that completely makes sense to me,” said Megan Houdeshel, a regulatory compliance attorney with Dorsey & Whitney LLP.
Other attorneys have concerns about placing environmental advisers in every branch of the administration as yet another indication of the growing political power of advocates, said Maureen Gorsen, a partner at Alston & Bird LLP and former general counsel of the California Environmental Protection Agency.
Gorsen, who represents the kinds of operations often targeted by such groups—from steel and cement operations to refineries and landfills—said those operations have to go somewhere.
“Nobody wants any of these things near them,” she said. “Where are they located? In industrial-zoned areas,” many of which historically have had poorer neighborhoods around them.
“The refinery isn’t moving, the rail isn’t moving, the Port of Long Beach certainly isn’t moving,” she added.
But advocates’ push for a seat at the table in agency decisions is a natural progression to provide a voice for groups too long ignored, said Catherine Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice.
Getting closer to the gears of government is crucial, Flowers said, given environmental threats to vulnerable communities have multiplied beyond the conventional idea of plants polluting surrounding neighborhoods.
The challenge today is “dismantling policies that have sickened people living near factory farming, mountain top removal, sea level rise, mining, and denied access to sustainable water and sanitation infrastructure,” said Flowers, who was tapped to a task force that advised President-elect Joe Biden on climate change issues ahead of the election.
“The injustices have evolved,” she said.
Biden made environmental justice core to his campaign, pledging “an inclusive and empowering All-of-Government approach” in a climate and environmental justice platform that vows to root out systemic racism in laws, policies, and institutions.
Early signs are promising, Ali said—including Biden’s selection of Obama EPA head Gina McCarthy as his domestic climate czar and Brenda Mallory to chair the Council on Environmental Quality.
But he said more work will be needed across agencies.
“Of course there is going to be EJ components to domestic and international climate, but in my mind, if you are going to make that same investment about climate throughout the administration but not environmental justice, you are going to leave a gap.” Ali said.
Biden has vowed equity concerns will be front and center within the CEQ, which coordinates federal environmental permitting, and will resurrect and elevate several environmental justice councils, including the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice created in the early 1990s.
For environmental justice advocates, that council’s membership reads like a roadmap for peppering departments with EJ advisers, with seats for the departments of Defense; Health and Human Services; Housing and Urban Development; Labor; Agriculture; Transportation; Justice; Interior; Commerce; Energy; and EPA.
The EPA was an early adopter in naming an environmental justice adviser in the early 1990s under the George H.W. Bush administration. Ali was the only senior adviser on environmental justice within the executive branch before his 2017 resignation from the position.
Any environmental justice issues raised inside the walls of government need to be clear to those on the outside, Houdeshel said. The Biden administration could accomplish that by issuing nonbinding policy guidance or other direction to agencies, which would provide the public a clear sense of how equity concerns will be implemented governmentwide, she said.
“The only way to get credibility on implementing these kinds of positions and ideas into decision-making is to be really transparent about it,” she said.