The Biden administration released a screening tool 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 on Friday that excluding race would make the projects less likely to attract legal challenges and easier to defend, even as they acknowledged that race was a major factor in terms of people who are 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 said this tool is a good start that will hopefully improve over time and is better than creating a tool that includes race as a factor and then is struck down by the Supreme Court. She said, “Race is a factor, but race is not the only factor.”
“Being marginalized in other ways is a factor,” she said.
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, 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.
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 Environmental Quality Council also announced Friday that the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine are working to launch a study of existing tools.