Friday's release by the Biden administration of a screening tool was to identify communities that have been long affected by environmental hazards. However, it will not consider race when deciding where resources should be allocated.
Reporters were told by administration officials that the exclusion of race would make projects easier to defend and less likely to be challenged in court. However, they admitted that race is a significant factor in determining who suffers environmental injustice.
Members of the environmental justice community reacted strongly to the decision.
Robert Bullard, a Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University in Houston and a Member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council said that "it's a big disappointment" and that it fails to identify communities most affected by pollution.
President Joe Biden made combating global climate change a priority in his administration. He also pledged in an broad executive order that 40 percent of the overall climate and environment benefits would be distributed to economically disadvantaged communities. This tool is essential for the implementation of the so-called Justice40 Initiative.
Brenda Mallory is the chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. She said that the tool will allow federal investments to climate, clean energy, and environmental improvements in communities that have been "left out and left behind" for too long.
Catherine Coleman Flowers, a member on the advisory council, was part of a group that provided recommendations to the Biden administration for the tool. She said she agreed with the decision to exclude race from the indicator.
She stated that the tool was a good starting point that will hopefully improve over time. It's better than creating an instrument that includes race and then getting struck down by Supreme Court. She stated that race is a factor but not the only one.
She said, "Being marginalized in other ways is a factor."
This screening tool considers 21 factors including air pollution, economic status and health outcomes to determine which communities are most at risk of economic and environmental injustice.
Environmental justice experts pointed out that the exclusion of race as a factor in environmental harm is contrary to a large body of scientific research.
Sacoby Wilson (associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health) said that "this was a political decision." "This decision was not scientific or data-driven." Wilson studied the distribution of pollutants and helped to create mapping tools such as the one released by the Council on Environmental Quality on Friday.
This tool is not the first to be found in the United States or in the federal government. This tool has been around for many years in California, Maryland and Michigan. EJ Screen is a similar tool from the Environmental Protection Agency. Many of these screening tools also include information on the racial makeup and environmental and health data.
The public has 60-days to review the tool and give feedback. Friday's announcement by the Council on Environmental Quality was also made. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are currently working on a study of existing tools.