The Biden Administration’s New Tool to Address Environmental Injustice
October 23, 2022 by Casey Hellman
By Casey Hellman, Staff Contributor
WHAT IS THE CLIMATE AND ECONOMIC JUSTICE SCREENING TOOL?
On January 27, 2021, President Biden issued Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, an executive order intended to increase the primacy of climate issues in domestic and foreign policy. The Order created the Justice40 Initiative, which is a commitment that forty percent of the benefits of federal investments in climate change, clean energy and energy efficiency, clean transit, affordable and sustainable housing, training and workforce development, remediation and reduction of legacy pollution, and the development of critical clean water and wastewater infrastructure will flow to disadvantaged communities that are overburdened by pollution. The Order also directed the Council on Environmental Quality (“CEQ”) to create a Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (“CEJST”) to help agencies identify the marginalized communities that the Justice40 Initiative is intended to benefit.
The CEJST’s creation represented a unique effort at government transparency. The software development for the tool has been open source, meaning anyone could download the code and explore how it works. CEQ also created a public Google Group where people could share ideas and troubleshoot issues. However, there are limits to these efforts at transparency and inclusion: many people do not know Python and therefore could not access the tool, and it is unclear how much of the feedback from the Google Group was integrated into the CEJST. In addition to the Google Group, CEQ received public feedback by hosting several public listening sessions, and any member of the public is still able to submit feedback through a form on the tool’s website.
The tool identifies communities through census tracts, which are geographical boundaries determined by the U.S. Census Bureau every ten years and are the smallest geographical unit for which consistent data are available. The tool classifies communities as disadvantaged in eight categories: (1) climate change, (2) clean energy and energy efficiency, (3) clean transit, (4) affordable and sustainable housing, (5) reduction and remediation of legacy pollution, (6) critical clean water and wastewater infrastructure, (7) health burdens, and (8) training and workforce development. For the Justice40 Initiative, communities in census tracts that are at or above the “disadvantaged” thresholds for at least one of those eight categories are disadvantaged. Each of the eight categories takes different kinds of data into account. However, all categories require that communities be above the low-income threshold and certain education non-attainment thresholds to be considered disadvantaged. The datasets examined for each community across the eight categories are low-income households, higher education non-enrollment, expected agriculture loss rate, expected building loss rate, expected population loss rate, energy burden, PM2.5 in the air, diesel particulate matter exposure, traffic proximity and volume, housing cost burden, lead paint, median home value, proximity to hazardous waste facilities, proximity to National Priority List sites, proximity to Risk Management Plan facilities, wastewater discharge, asthma, diabetes, heart disease, low life expectancy, low median income, linguistic isolation, unemployment, poverty, and high school degree non-attainment.
On the “Explore the Map” page of the screening tool’s website, anyone is able to view which communities are labeled as disadvantaged and in which categories. Disadvantaged communities are highlighted in gray on the map, and clicking on any community, whether advantaged or disadvantaged, will bring up that data for that community in each of the eight categories.
IS THE CEJST TOOL EFFECTIVE?
One of the most common critiques of the CEJST is that it cannot be successful in delivering environmental justice if it does not incorporate race in its methodology to identify the communities that will receive Justice40 benefits. The Strong, Prosperous and Resilient Communities Challenge, an initiative comprised of several national non-profits that aims to ensure new investments reduce racial disparities, explained,
The experiences of Indigenous, Black, Latinx, Asian-American and Pacific Islander and People of Color in this nation have been predicated along systemic and institutional racism that permeates every aspect of where we live, where we work, where we go to school and how we experience our daily lives. Any tool that seeks to reverse and address injustices and deliver benefits to address environmental harms including to public health must account for these truths.
Although the communities designated as disadvantaged in the current methodology are primarily non-white communities, the methodology does not account for the reality that many non-white communities are polluted not because they are poor but because they are non-white. For example, a study has shown that residents of formerly redlined neighborhoods continue to breathe more polluted air. Because of the income and education requirements in each category, many middle-income communities that are populated primarily by people of color and are overburdened by pollution are not classified as disadvantaged by the tool and are therefore ineligible for Justice40 benefits. The arbitrary nature of the thresholds means that even communities that are well above the thresholds for the environmental indicators but only slightly under the socioeconomic thresholds, even when they are surrounded by communities that meet both types of thresholds, will not receive aid. CEQ has argued that it is sufficient to not include race because the other datasets serve as a proxy for race. Other government responses have indicated that race was not made a factor in order to avoid lawsuits claiming that the tool discriminates against white communities, similar to a successful lawsuit that blocked a Biden administration plan intended to aid farmers of color.
Another critique is that although the tool looks at some health conditions that are linked to poverty or pollution, such as asthma, it does not look at the prevalence of cancer, which exposure to chemicals and pollution increases the risk of. Other indicators that commenters suggested including are car ownership and the percentage of renters in the community.
Commenters also noted that the tool does not take into account that some disadvantaged communities may be significantly more burdened than other disadvantaged communities. Whether a community is barely over the disadvantaged threshold in one of the eight categories or it is over the threshold in all eight categories, all communities receive the same “disadvantaged” label. There is no way to differentiate communities that are in more dire need of Justice40 benefits.
As of October 2022, the CEJST is still in beta, so CEQ still has the opportunity to make changes to the tool based on the feedback it has received from the public. The CEJST will better serve the purposes of the Justice40 Initiative if a more flexible method of determining which communities are disadvantaged is incorporated into the tool.
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 Chemnick, supra note 12.
 Scott, supra note 15.
 Chemnick, supra note 12.