An administration official recently sent President Biden’s environmental justice advisers a list of ground rules — something that caused dismay at a time when frustrations abound over the White House’s progress on the issue.
Among the rules: Do not advocate on behalf of your organization or community, refrain from asking anything that could be construed as a conflict of interest, and do not share what happened in the meeting with anyone.
“You were appointed to the [White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council] to represent a particular viewpoint not your organization or a specific community you work with or for,” wrote Karen Martin, an EPA staffer who is the designated federal officer for the council.
“Remember we are working to create recommendations that will benefit communities across the country,” she wrote.
The White House said the email merely reiterated standard guidelines in the Federal Advisory Committee Act. Still, some advisers were taken aback, especially because of mounting concerns about the administration’s commitment to fast action on environmental justice.
“It was very triggering to me,” said LaTricea Adams, a council member and founder of the group Black Millennials 4 Flint. “Being such an on-the-ground person who has spent an exorbitant amount of time with communities to provide a liaison to this administration, when I accepted the invitation to the appointment, I thought that would be my role.”
Martin’s email, obtained by E&E News, came after a November council meeting in which domestic climate adviser Gina McCarthy told council members she would look into local matters, according to two people in the meeting.
Adams found the tone of the email off-putting and is considering leaving the council. “We are doing this for free — we are doing this for the greater world of America,” she said. “Everyone is kind of frustrated.”
The exchange illustrates larger tensions brewing between the outside experts and the White House over Justice40, the Biden plan to funnel federal dollars to minority and low-income communities long afflicted by environmental racism.
Adding to the concerns, two top White House aides announced their departure, including Cecilia Martinez as senior director for environmental justice at the Council on Environmental Quality and David Kieve, who had been a liaison with green groups (Greenwire, Jan. 10).
‘Where the rub is’
Broadly, the outside advisers have expressed disappointment that progress has been slow on a number of fronts. For one, the White House for months has been saying a critical tool to distribute the money — the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool — is nearly ready for public consumption, but the release has repeatedly been delayed (Greenwire, Nov. 2, 2021).
The advisers got a preview of the screening tool, which is being created by the U.S. Digital Service, but they were not entirely encouraged by what they saw. For starters, the tool fails to include race indicators.
“Will this skew results away from, for example, African Americans?” 10 prominent environmental justice activists wrote in a letter to the White House.
They stressed that race is the “most potent and consistent predictor of where pollution and other environmental burdens are concentrated.”
Administration aides say they want the tool to be legally bulletproof, pointing to an Agriculture Department case last year where white farmers sued the government after the agency launched a program that sought to reverse decades of well-documented racism toward Black farmers.
But activists are pushing back on what they see as the Biden administration’s timidity. The letter to CEQ, which is led by Brenda Mallory, who is Black, said the United States’ long history “cannot be ignored.”
“CEQ needs to be bold, creative, and innovative in its thinking and approach that can pass the ‘legal test’ and the ‘reality test’ of what’s really happening to people and communities on the ground,” the activists wrote.
One approach could be for the administration to use data on geographic racial segregation and historical housing discrimination, said the advocates.
Robert Bullard, an adviser and Texas Southern University professor, said the omission of race leaves out the most important layer for what is happening on the ground.
“There are all kinds of terms that have been used to be a proxy for race — whether it is disadvantaged, underserved, vulnerable, marginalized,” he said.
“When you peel the onion and get to the core, all these terms generally will point to race and systemic inequality that is driven by racism,” said Bullard. “That’s where the rub is. There are forces that run against calling what is really happening. If it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. Don’t call it something else.”
The tool fails to include other environmental indicators such as proximity to hazardous waste facilities, the activists wrote. And there is no accounting for cumulative impacts. They also noted the need for indicators showing problems in rural and tribal areas.
‘Need to get assurances’
In recent weeks, the White House has characterized Justice40 as a huge undertaking akin to steering a giant ship. Administration officials say the process is ongoing and emphasize relentless work happening at agencies every day.
Last month, agencies submitted Justice40 plans detailing how new and existing federal programs could maximize “benefits” to disadvantaged communities. The Energy Department, for instance, launched a $16 million local action program to provide technical assistance to low-income communities.
But the administration’s use of the word “benefits” — rather than actual investment dollars — has created confusion among activists.
“It wasn’t initially made clear what ‘benefits’ are,” said Kyle Whyte, an advisory board member and professor of Native American studies and philosophy at the University of Michigan. “Benefits are currently undefined, making Justice40 an unspecified target until further definition can be given.”
The White House says it is reviewing the agency plans and is facing a February deadline to provide a status update. But time is running short: Funds from the infrastructure law are already going out the door.
“We need to get assurances that the administration has promised,” said Elizabeth Yeampierre, co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance in New York. “We continued to have concerns about the lack of transparency. Our communities have to be more than poster children to an agenda. They need to be literally at the table.”