Biden Administration Releases Two Environmental Justice Tools on the Same Day
Posted: February 24th, 2022Authors: Rich H.
On February 18th, the Biden administration released two Environmental Justice (EJ)-related tools. First, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) released a beta version of the long-awaited Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool. Later in the day, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) released EJSCREEN 2.0, a significant upgrade to the previous version of the tool, with many new features and data sources, and a revised user interface. These tools are the building blocks around which the administration will determine which communities are overburdened and subject to special consideration in future policy and rulemaking.
Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool
In the first days of the Biden Administration, Executive Order 14008, the CEQ was directed to create a screening tool (then to be called the Climate and Environmental Justice Screening Tool as opposed to Climate and Economic Justice) to support the Justice40 Initiative which requires that federal investments provide at least 40 percent of the overall benefits of the project to disadvantaged communities. The tool is to be used by federal agencies to identify which communities are disadvantaged to enable them to comply with the requirements of the initiative.
The tool was finally released on February 18th after heavy pressure from non-governmental organizations (NGO’s). The tool includes eight major categories that are used to determine if a community, at the census tract level, is considered disadvantaged for the purpose of the Justice40 Initiative:
- Climate Change
- Clean Energy and Energy Efficiency
- Clean Transit
- Affordable and Sustainable Housing
- Reduction and Remediation of Legacy Pollution
- Critical Clean Water and Waste Infrastructure
- Health Burdens
- Training and Workforce Development.
Each category contains one or more subcategories adding up to a total of 21 indicators. Each major category also comes along with 2 sociometric indicators, usually Low Income and Higher Education Enrollment Rate. A census tract that is above a set threshold for any one of the 21 indicators (typically the 90th percentile) and triggers both sociometric indicators (for example, above the 65th percentile for low income and at or below the 20th percentile for higher ed enrollment rate) for that category is considered disadvantaged.
Based on the above criteria, 32% of the census tracts in the United States, representing about 93,500,000 Americans or 28% of the population are considered disadvantaged, with a very large percentage being in the southeastern part of the country, especially in rural areas. An immediate observation is that a federal initiative affecting the entire country equally would, by default, be providing 80% of the required 40% overall benefit to disadvantaged communities without any special accommodation towards them at all.
It is also important to note that this tool gives equal consideration to categories not related to climate change or exposure to pollution as those that do. For example, a census tract is disadvantaged if it is at or above the 90th percentile for low median income and is at less than 90% for high school degree attainment rate and below 20% for higher ed enrollment rate, regardless of the levels of pollution in the ambient air or proximity to pollution sources. As a result many, if not most, of the communities that are defined as disadvantaged by the tool are not above thresholds in any pollution or climate-related categories.
Also of interest, the CEQ says it has designed the tool to withstand legal challenges. Because of that, race was specifically excluded as a factor, despite urgent calls from the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC) to include it. This decision has resulted in immediate backlash from environmental groups across the country stating that by excluding race, the tool is leaving behind many of the people who have long been the subject of EJ concerns, and live in communities that the EJSCREEN tool would identify as overburdened.
The tool currently uses census tract data from the 2010 U.S. Census, though the intent is to update to the 2020 Census as soon as the data is available. The website has a methodology section that presents the source of the data behind each indicator.
The second tool released on February 18th was the significantly updated version of EJSCREEN. The update includes a new interface that makes it easier to access the different kinds of indicators, and also new, broader categories of data that can be used to determine if a community is overburdened.
The main interface allows easy access to the 12 EJ Indexes which are the heart of the tool, with Underground Storage tanks being a new EJ Index added to this version. The display when one of these items is selected is much the same as the previous version.
Next comes Pollution and Sources, which is a new name for the Environmental Indicators and is brought to the forefront of the tool more so than in the previous version. Now it is easier to see which areas are impacted by higher levels of pollution regardless of whether the communities are overburdened based on socioeconomic indicators.
While the socioeconomic indicators have not changed since the last version of EJSCREEN, three new categories of data are provided that you can overlay on the EJ, pollution, or socioeconomic indicators. The first is Health Disparities, and includes three subcategories:
- Low Life Expectancy
- Heart Disease
Next is Climate Change Data, covering the following items:
- Wildfire Hazard Potential
- Coastal Flood Hazard
- 100 Year Flood Plain
- Sea Level Rise
The last new category is Critical Service Gaps, which includes:
- Broadband Gaps
- Food Desert
- Medically Underserved
The format of the standard EJSCREEN reports themselves appear unchanged, and the new categories above are not factored into the EJ Index calculations. Like the CEQ tool, the census tracts are currently based on the 2010 Census, though some of the demographics data have been updated to use the 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) data. The environmental data are also more recent, using the 2017 National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) data.
Thoughts and Conclusions
The CEQ tool is perhaps the more interesting of the two tools in that the focus of the tool seems to have changed from what was originally intended in EO14008, to be a tool to support EJ initiatives and identify EJ communities, to the broader definition of identifying disadvantaged communities. As a result, a large swath of the communities identified as disadvantaged would not be considered EJ communities and would likely show relatively low percentiles in the EJ Indices in the EJSCREEN tool. For example, in Georgia, most of the state, other than urban areas like Atlanta, appears as disadvantaged, while the cities do not. In EJSCREEN on the other hand, the cities are more likely to produce results that would suggest a community has EJ challenges than the rural areas, Atlanta again being an example, where most of downtown would be in the 80% percentile or higher for several EJ Indexes. The difference in a disadvantaged community in the CEQ tool vs. an overburdened one in EJSCREEN is further being confused when the media describes these tools by using these terms interchangeably.
This differentiation is important because while the tools are designed with different purposes in mind, one can easily envision that they will be used in similar ways by NGO’s: to find opportunities for public comment to challenge permit activities or otherwise file complaints. Additionally, the EJSCREEN tool, by bringing the Environmental Indicators more to the forefront, makes it easier to identify facilities in environmentally challenging areas, even if the demographics don’t classify the area as overburdened based on the EJ Index calculations.
Between the expanded data sets in the new tools, just about anywhere in the country where an industrial facility sits can be found to be disadvantaged, overburdened, or have other environmental challenges that could put the facility at risk from public interest groups opposing the presence of the facility, the stringency of the facility’s environmental permits, or a proposed project at the facility. U.S. EPA and CEQ are actively taking feedback on both tools, both in written form and via webinars as the tools are developed. Now is the time to comment if there are elements in the tool that are questionable or need modification.
If you have concerns about the potential implications of these tools and you’d like to discuss them, feel free to contact your ALL4 Project Manager or Rich Hamel. We’d be happy to share what we’ve learned so far and what we’re hearing is just over the horizon and assist you in any way we can. We can also help you evaluate the EJ risk for each of your facilities and plot a strategy to minimize that risk by performing local monitoring, air dispersion modeling, and public outreach. We’re here to help!