The Biden administration released a screening tool on Friday to help identify disadvantaged communities long plagued by environmental risks, but it will not include race as a factor in deciding where to spend resources.
Administration officials told reporters that excluding race would make the projects less likely to attract legal challenges and easier to defend, even as they acknowledged race was a major factor in terms of people victims of environmental injustice.
The decision was fiercely contested by members of the environmental justice community.
“It’s a major disappointment and it’s a major flaw in trying to identify the communities that have been hardest hit by pollution,” said Robert Bullard, professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas. Southern University in Houston and a member of the White House. Environmental Justice Advisory Council.
President Joe Biden has made tackling climate change a priority of his administration and pledged in a far-reaching executive order to “bring environmental justice to communities across America.” The order, signed in his first week in office, sets a target that 40% of overall benefits from climate and environmental investments would go to disadvantaged communities. The tool is a key element to carry out this so-called Justice40 initiative.
Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the tool will help direct federal investments in climate, clean energy and environmental improvements to communities “that have been left behind.” aside for too long”.
Catherine Coleman Flowers, an advisory board member who served on a task force that gave recommendations to the Biden administration for the tool, said she agreed with the decision to exclude race as an indicator. .
She called the tool a good start that will likely improve over time and said including race as a factor risks having the tool struck down by the Supreme Court.
“Race is a factor, but race is not the only factor,” she said. “Being marginalized in other ways is a factor.”
The screening tool uses 21 factors, including air pollution, health outcomes and economic status, to identify communities most vulnerable to environmental and economic injustices.
But omitting race as a factor flies in the face of an extensive body of scientific research showing that race is the biggest determinant of who experiences environmental harm, environmental justice experts have pointed out.
“It was a political decision,” said Sacoby Wilson, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. “It was not a scientific decision or a decision based on data.” Wilson has studied the distribution of environmental pollutants and helped develop mapping tools like the one the Council on Environmental Quality released on Friday.
“How can the White House tackle environmental racism without tackling race?” asked the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in a tweet. The New Orleans-based group works to help families affected by decades of industrial pollution in the Gulf Coast region.
“Time and time again, the data has clearly shown that African Americans disproportionately live in communities with higher pollutants than other races of people,” the group said.
The center’s executive director, Beverly Wright, helped organize a “Journey to Justice” tour by EPA Administrator Michael Regan last fall. The week-long tour focused on low-income, mostly minority communities in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas and led to a series of enforcement actions by the EPA to combat air pollution, unsafe drinking water, and other issues affecting minority communities on the Gulf Coast and nationwide.
It’s not the first such tool to exist in the United States, or even in the federal government. California, Maryland, Michigan and New Jersey have had tools like this for years. And the Environmental Protection Agency has a similar tool, EJ Screen. Many of these screening tools include information about the racial makeup of communities as well as environmental and health data.
The public has 60 days to use the tool and provide feedback. The CEQ also announced on Friday that the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine are working to launch a study of existing tools.
Associated Press writer Matthew Daly contributed to this report.
Follow Drew Costley on Twitter: @drewcostley.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
This work is supported by a grant funded by the Walton Family Foundation and administered by the Society of Environmental Journalists.