The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and 15 other environmental, water quality, and faith organizations today urged the White House to use race and a more inclusive definition of “disadvantaged” in the tool it will use to determine whether a community qualifies for additional federal resources to address the environmental injustices it faces.
CBF and its partners made their recommendations in comments on the draft Climate and Environmental Justice Screening Tool (CEJST) the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) rolled out in February. Federal agencies will use CEJST to identify communities eligible for additional assistance under the administration’s Justice40 Initiative. The Initiative’s goal is to direct 40 percent of the benefits of federal climate and clean energy investments to under-resourced communities.
CEJST uses 25 environmental, economic, and other metrics to determine whether a community is “disadvantaged” and therefore eligible for Justice40 resources. Metrics include income, proximity to hazardous waste sites, and exposure to diesel exhaust, but not race. The administration said it excluded race to ensure the tool can withstand legal challenges.
The groups noted that President Biden launched a government-wide effort his first day in office to advance racial equity and support communities that historically have lacked resources or been marginalized. “By eliminating race from the data in CEJST,” they wrote, “the administration fails to follow its own commitment to recognize that race does play an important part in assessing whether communities are vulnerable to environmental injustices.”
The groups also opposed the administration’s proposal to raise the bar for deeming a community “disadvantaged,” arguing it would undermine the purpose of CEJST by denying federal aid to fight discrimination to many communities that are currently qualify for it.
One glaring example in the watershed is Buckingham County, a rural Virginia community of color founded by formerly enslaved people after the Civil War. Friends of Buckingham County, represented by CBF and the Southern Environmental Law Center, successfully challenged a state permit for a natural gas compressor station on the grounds the state failed to meaningfully consider the disproportionate environmental and health threats it posed to the community.
Despite the precedent-setting win for environmental justice advocates two and a half years ago, CJEST would disqualify Buckingham County from receiving federal support to fight environmental injustice.
CBF Environmental Justice Staff Attorney Taylor Lilley issued the following statement:
“As proposed, CEJST fails to adequately identify marginalized communities disproportionately harmed by pollution and would deny support to overburdened communities or overlook them entirely.
“If the Biden administration is serious about its commitment to environmental justice, it must do better. Fighting deeply rooted environmental injustice requires a tool that accurately reflects the pivotal role race plays in determining where environmental injustice occurs.
“CBF urges the administration to incorporate race into CEJST and lower the threshold to qualify for federal resources so the tool it creates to advance environmental justice does not perpetuate it instead.”
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The following organizations signed on to CBF’s comments:
Blue Water Baltimore
Crab Creek Conservancy
Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation
Friends of Lower Beaverdam Creek
Friends of Nanticoke River
Pennsylvania Council of Churches
Restore America’s Estuaries
Virginia Conservation Network
Wicomico Environmental Trust