Biden administration prioritizes environmental justice funding without mentioning race, hoping to fend off legal challenge

But it notably leaves out race as a factor to determine whether a community is eligible for the initiative, prompting some pushback from environmental justice advocates who say the point of Justice40 is to address environmental racism.

A CEQ official said that while the White House team fully acknowledges “the role of racism and race in determining where environmental burdens are and have been in this country,” it also wants the tool to pass legal muster.

“We have a desire to make sure this tool is legally enduring,” the CEQ official told reporters. “I think 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.”

Research has shown that communities of color often face disproportionate exposure to air pollution that leads to respiratory illnefss. The American Lung Association’s 2021 “State of the Air” report showed that people of color are 61% more likely than White people to live in a county with a failing grade for at least one pollutant.

Studies have also found that communities of color are more likely to be on the front lines of the climate crisis.

“Too many American communities are still living with water that isn’t safe to drink, housing that isn’t built to withstand climate change-fueled storms, and too few opportunities to benefit from the nation’s bright and clean future,” CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory said. “The Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool will help Federal agencies ensure that the benefits of the nation’s climate, clean energy, and environmental programs are finally reaching the communities that have been left out and left behind for far too long.”

New York state passed a law in 2019 with a similar goal, to invest 35% to 40% of its climate and clean energy funds into “disadvantaged communities.” New York’s methodology diverges from the White House approach by including race as a qualifying category.

The White House is launching a website with a searchable map to identify the most environmentally disadvantaged communities around the country. A census tract on the map will be considered a disadvantaged community by CEQ if it exceeds at least one of eight criteria in both the climate and environmental risk category and the socioeconomic risk category.
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CEQ officials said federal agencies will be the primary users of the tool, identifying which communities can qualify for federal climate and clean energy funding. Friday’s launch is a beta version of the website, and CEQ will be taking public comment on the tool for 60 days.

“We want to build the tool in a way that reflects the realities that racism and race are big determining factors in where pollution is concentrated in this country,” the official said.

The CEQ official was not aware of any potential legal challenges to the tool. The Biden administration hopes that states and local communities will take advantage of the tool to see who is eligible for federal funding, the official said.

“I think what we’re hoping is that people will explore the tool and give us feedback on it and help build this tool in a way that reflects the experiences and priorities in their own states,” the official said.

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