Environmental justice report praised, scorned | News, Sports, Jobs

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A report by a hand-picked White House council recommends no new coal-fired power plants or transmission line maintenance from funds meant to help minorities and disadvantaged groups.

CHARLESTON – A report last month from a White House advisory group on ways to invest in disadvantaged communities affected by climate change and fossil fuels received praise from one Appalachian group, though 1st District Congressman David McKinley is more concerned about what the report recommends against.

The White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council released a report May 13 detailing interim final recommendations to President Joe Biden.

The 91-page report gives recommendations on several environmental justice initiatives, including Justice40, an effort to make sure that 40 percent of federal investments in climate change mitigation plans benefit minority and disadvantaged communities.

WHEJAC co-chairs Richard Moore and Peggy Shepard summarized the group’s recommendations in a May 21 letter to Brenda Mallory, chairwoman of the Council on Environmental Quality. The council recommended the White House create an accountability process to ensure environmental justice

benefits trickled down to disadvantaged communities. They also encouraged Biden and cabinet officials to begin implementing Justice40 immediately.

Goals include helping Biden’s goals of cutting greenhouse emissions by as much as 52 percent of 2005 levels by 2030. Justice40 anticipates sunsetting investment in fossil fuels, plastics, dangerous chemicals, and nuclear energy, replacing them with renewable energy sources by 2030. The report also calls for replacing all lead water pipes by 2030.

“The WHEJAC looks forward to submitting its recommendations on these issues that are crucial to an effective Justice40 and Executive Order,” Moore and Shepard wrote. “We are encouraged by this new beginning and the Biden Administration’s commitments to frontline/EJ (environmental justice) and Indigenous communities.”

Tom Cormons, executive director of Appalachian Voices, is one of 26 members of the WHEJAC. Appalachian Voices — based in Boone, N.C., with offices in Virginia and Tennessee — advocates for a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Speaking in his capacity as leader of Appalachian Voices and not as the spokesperson for WHEJAC, Cormons said the Justice40 document was the result of collaboration.

“I think the good thing is that we were able to take the vast experience of WHEJAC members and the vast networks of the members of WHEJAC and funnel a lot of perspective and expertise into those pages in that short time,” Cormons said.

The Justice40 document was developed with oral and written public comments from people and groups, including people within Appalachia who wished to see increased funding and resource for Black Lung, a debilitating respiratory disease brought about by years of breathing in coal dust. Cormons also said they communicated with their networks inside Appalachia when developing the recommendations.

“We had had a lot of these conversations about what are the priorities to bring justice to these communities,” Cormons said. “That was something that we were then able to leverage to give sort of a head start on the input to the WHEJAC.”

Some of the recommendations for Justice40 initiatives include investing in clean energy and renewable energy projects; regenerative agriculture and green infrastructure; clean energy job training; lead water

pipe replacement; clean drinking water and environmentally sound sanitation; programs to reduce greenhouse gases and support economic, social, and environmental benefits; and public transportation.

For McKinley, R-W.Va., the ranking Republican member the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment, it is the part of the Justice40 report listing “examples of the types of projects that may benefit a community” that cause him concern.

“This is a bizarre approach towards dealing with the environment,” McKinley said. “This is a dangerous approach, and we’re more concerned that this is showing the underbelly of the President’s vision for how he wants to deal with fossil fuels.”

Some of the kinds of projects WHEJAC advises against supporting include fossil fuel procurement, development, and infrastructure repair that extends the life of coal and natural gas-fired power plants; carbon capture and sequestration and direct air capture; nuclear power; research and development; expansion of highways or road improvements other than for electric vehicle charging stations; and pipeline creation, expansion, or maintenance.

McKinley is concerned that WHEJAC, being hand-picked by the Biden administration, will have more of the ear of the White House unlike an independent think tank. McKinley also points out that none of the membership of WHEJAC include people and groups directly affected by the group’s recommendations.

“This is an indication of where the administration is leaning,” McKinley said. “You don’t see on this advisory committee people from the industry, you don’t see building trades, you don’t see anyone from the coal industry. This is an environmentally sensitive group that he selected for this, so I’m not surprised they came out with such harsh tones with this.”

McKinley is not a climate change denier, but he would like to see more funding for research and development to make greenhouse-mitigating technologies – such as carbon capture and sequestration – a reality. Research on capturing emissions from power plants and either storing those emissions underground or finding other uses for the gases would protect the environment and keep people employed in the coal mines and natural gas plants.

“Instead of taking this, I think, kind of a sophomoric approach of just doing away with the product, why don’t we work with science and find a way that we can capture the carbon and continue to use our product, keep our jobs healthy, keep our environment solid with it, and our economy solid with it,” McKinley asked.

Chelsea Barnes, the legislative director for Appalachian Voices, is working with members of Congress to include climate change infrastructure funding in Biden’s American Jobs Plan currently being negotiated between the White House and U.S. Senate Republicans led by U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.

Barnes said the Justice40 recommendations are only meant to make sure environmental justice funding reaches those who have been most affected by negative environmental impacts.

“We want 40 percent of funds to be spent in disadvantaged communities,” Barnes said. “It should be spent on things that create clean jobs, create sustainable jobs, help the communities with things like water infrastructure. It should not be used on things that a lot of times cause environmental degradation and health problems in those communities.”

Citing the possibility of increased utility bills, job losses in the coal and natural gas industries, China and India building more fossil fuel power plants, McKinley said the cure for climate change could be worse than the disease itself.

“We mine coal in 26 states. Each one of those states, it’s Mississippi, Alabama. They’re all going to be negatively impacted If this kind of report gets traction,” McKinley argued. “We’ve got to stop it early and point out that if you go this route and you haven’t looked at what the alternatives are, these people are not going to have a job.”

WHEJAC was created by Biden through an executive order, titled “Tackling the Climate Crisis at

Home and Abroad,” dated Jan. 27 — mere days after being sworn in as President. The goal of the council, created within the Environmental Protection Agency, is to “address current and historic environmental injustice.”

“We know that we cannot achieve health justice, economic justice, racial justice, or educational justice without environmental justice. That is why President Biden and I are committed to addressing environmental injustice,” said Vice President Kamala Harris in a March 29 statement. “This historic White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council will ensure that our administration’s work is informed by the insights, expertise, and lived experience of environmental justice leaders from across the nation.”

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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