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Biden’s environmental justice advisers express frustrations

Biden’s environmental justice advisers express frustrations

A White House official sent President Biden’s environmental justice advisors a list with ground rules. This was a disconcerting development at a time when frustrations are abound about the White House’s progress on the issue.

The rules are: Don’t advocate for your community or organization, don’t ask any questions that could be interpreted as a conflict, and don’t share what happened at the meeting with anyone.

You were appointed to the [White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council]Karen Martin, an EPA staffer and designated federal officer for this council, stated that you should not represent a particular point of view, but your organization or a certain community you work with.

She wrote that we are trying to make recommendations that will benefit all communities across the country.

The White House stated that the email merely reiterated the Federal Advisory Committee Act’s standard guidelines. 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 my, said LaTricea Adam, a council member who is also the founder of Black Millennials 4 Flint. Because I am an experienced person on the ground who has spent a lot time with communities to provide a link to this administration, I thought that this would be my role when I accepted the invitation.

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 in the email to be off-putting, and is considering leaving council. She stated that she is not doing this for a fee, but for the greater American community. Everyone is frustrated.

This exchange reveals larger tensions between the White House and outside experts over Justice40, Biden’s plan to funnel federal funds to low-income and minority communities that have been afflicted long ago by environmental racism.

Two top White House aides, Cecilia Martinez, senior director for environmental justice at Council on Environmental Quality, and David Kieve (who had been a liaison to green groups), announced their resignations.Greenwire, Jan. 10).

‘Where the rub is’

The outside advisors expressed disappointment that progress has been slow across a variety of fronts. One, the White House has said for months that a crucial tool to distribute the money from the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool is almost ready for public consumption. However, it has repeatedly delayed its release (Greenwire, Nov. 2, 2021).

Advisors were able to see a preview of the U.S. Digital Service’s screening tool, but they weren’t entirely impressed by what they saw. The tool doesn’t include race indicators, for starters.

This could skew the results in favor of, for instance, African Americans. In a letter to President Obama, 10 prominent environmental justice activists wrote.

They stressed the importance of race as a predictor of where pollution and other environmental burdens are concentrated.

Administration aides insist that the tool should be legally bulletproof. This is based on a case in Agriculture Department last year, where white farmers sued to stop the government from implementing a program designed to reverse decades of documented racism towards Black farmers.

However, activists are challenging what they see as the timidity of Biden’s administration. 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.

The advocates suggested that one approach is for the administration to use data about historical housing discrimination and geographic racial separation.

Robert Bullard, an adviser who is also a Texas Southern University professor, stated that the omissions of race leave out the most important layer of what is actually happening on the ground.

There are many terms that have been used as a proxy to race, whether it is disadvantaged or underserved, vulnerable or marginalized.

Bullard said that when you peel the onion and get down to the core, all these terms point to systemic racism and race. That’s the problem. There are forces out there that try to stop what is really happening. It’s a duck if it walks and quacks as a duck. Don’t call it anything else.

The activists complained that the tool doesn’t include other environmental indicators like proximity to hazardous waste facilities. The tool does not account for cumulative impacts. They also highlighted the need for indicators to show problems in rural areas and tribal areas.

‘Need to get assurances’

The White House has described Justice40 in recent weeks as a huge undertaking similar to steering a huge ship. Officials from the administration insist that the process continues and that agencies are doing a lot of work every day.

Justice40 plans were submitted last month by agencies detailing how federal programs can maximize benefits for disadvantaged communities. For example, the Energy Department has launched a $16million local action program to provide technical assistance for 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. Justice40 is currently a target because benefits are still unclear.

According to the White House it is currently reviewing the agency’s plans and has a February deadline to provide status updates. But time is running out: Funds from infrastructure law are already being sent out the door.

Elizabeth Yeampierre (co-chair of Climate Justice Alliance in New York) stated that we need assurances from the administration. We continue to be concerned about the lack of transparency. Our communities need to be more than mere poster children for an agenda. They have to be at the table.

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