Dean Scott

President Joe Biden’s push to elevate racial justice and the needs of disadvantaged communities is starting to overshadow a key player at the forefront of environmental justice for more than two decades: the Environmental Protection Agency.

And some say it’s about time.

President Biden has made a series of moves that diminish EPA’s role in corralling federal agencies to confront environmental justice and elevate the influence of White House offices and staff, including the Office of Management and Budget; the White House Council on Environmental Quality; and White House Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy. The changes were spelled out in his Jan. 27 executive order outlining steps for tackling climate change.

The White House takeover is long overdue, said Alabama activist Catherine Flowers, who founded the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice.

“If they had been effective policies, and EPA had had a lot of success, we wouldn’t still be talking about environmental justice” more than 25 years after President Clinton put EPA atop the issue with his own executive order, she said.

The EPA has had an outsize role in environmental justice since Clinton directed it to make the issue a priority and push other agencies to identify and address disproportionate impacts on low-income residents and communities of color.

But having EPA atop the pecking order has meant environmental justice issues have only gotten a cursory look elsewhere—including big departments such as Transportation and Health and Human Services advocates argue. EPA’s own environmental justice efforts have waxed and waned, but ultimately survived what many feared would be an elimination of its office in the early days of the Trump administration.

‘Ensure Accountability’

The new White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council will develop broad strategies to combat environmental inequities. It also will develop “clear performance metrics to ensure accountability” for agencies and an annual scorecard to rate progress, according to Biden’s executive order. CEQ, which advises presidents on environmental policy, will lead the council.

The new multi-agency council replaces an interagency environmental justice panel that was widely criticized for getting only grudging cooperation from member agencies. The Government Accountability Office repeatedly gave the EPA-led panel poor marks, concluding in November 2019 that 12 of the 16 agencies failed to lay out methods to gauge progress or set milestones, and most hadn’t updated strategic plans to address environmental justice in nearly a decade.

The interagency council includes representatives from the offices of the attorney general and secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, and Transportation—in addition to the EPA.

But Biden also provided more than a half-dozen seats for White House offices including the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, the OMB director, his national climate adviser, and the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Biden’s signal that environmental justice should be a governmentwide priority is making federal entities traditionally on the periphery of environmental justice more accessible, Flowers said. For example, she’s been able to schedule meetings with Freddie Mac, chartered by Congress to expand home ownership but under fire for doing too little for low-income and communities of color seeking housing.

“These are people who wouldn’t have met with me four years ago,” Flowers said.

EPA Commitment Remains

Biden’s January executive order also directed the new CEQ-led interagency council to advise the White House by the end of May on further strengthening Clinton’s 1994 environmental justice executive order.

The EPA has pledged it will double down on its own environmental justice efforts, even as it’s taking a back seat of sorts to White House efforts. But the EPA is giving CEQ administrative support as it takes the reins on the interagency council, and the EPA will still hold a council seat.

It’s “both reasonable and most effective” that CEQ take the lead on the issue, EPA Press Secretary Nick Conger said.

“EPA’s role in this whole of government approach will only be enhanced as we continue to be a leader in advancing environmental justice nationwide,” he said.

The EPA also will provide funding and administrative support for a new White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council made up of advocates and experts. That new council, which announced its roster March 29 and is modeled after a panel that has advised EPA on environmental justice efforts since the 1990s, will feed its findings to both CEQ and the interagency group.

Those recommendations are to include how to strengthen environmental justice monitoring and enforcement at the EPA, the Justice Department, and Department of Health and Human Services.

Biden also tapped CEQ and OMB rather than EPA to lead a new Justice40 Initiative—a Biden pledge that’s under scrutiny by advocates—that promises 40% of clean energy, clean water, and other investment benefits will flow to disadvantaged communities.

Measuring Progress

Biden’s efforts won’t necessarily hurt EPA’s own EJ efforts, said Peggy Shepard, executive director for WE ACT for Environmental Justice. EPA Administrator Michael Regan has made them a top priority, she noted, but added Biden’s “whole of government” approach requires sustained White House attention.

“EPA has been the sole agency focused on it” but lacked “metrics, timetables, or specific outcomes to measure progress,” she said. EPA’s work has amounted to “plans, and EJ roadmaps, and high falutin’ branding names” that only chipped away at a problem bigger than one agency, she said.

Mustafa Santiago Ali, who helped lead EPA environmental justice effort for decades before resigning early in the Trump administration, said EPA still has a daunting workload focusing on how its own programs, regulations, policies, and enforcement can better tackle environmental inequities.

Ali calls for doubling or tripling CEQ staff so it can tackle its broader environmental justice role and wants all agencies to have environmental justice advisory councils. Total CEQ staff amounts to about two-dozen staffers plus a few additional personnel detailed from other agencies. For comparison, EPA has roughly 80 staffers who are working on environmental justice issues, including EJ staff at its regional offices.

But the outlook for that kind of staffing surge at CEQ, which would need congressional approval, is unclear.

Elevating CEQ

Advocates have praised Biden’s top picks at CEQ, including Brenda Mallory, who held key positions at the council and the EPA for President Barack Obama, and Cecilia Martinez, named CEQ’s Senior Director for Environmental Justice.

Shepard, the WE ACT founder, said the jury is still out on whether CEQ’s larger role will translate into governmentwide action on environmental justice. The CEQ has “never had an EJ presence,” she noted, and will rely on EPA expertise as it scales up those efforts.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality, in an e-mailed statement, said the CEQ-led Environmental Justice Interagency Council and EPA-led White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council will work together to “ensure that the voices and perspectives of environmental justice communities are heard, and that federal agencies are coordinating to build a more equitable, just, and clean future.”

The collaboration “builds on and elevates the extensive work that has already been done by EPA and, just as importantly, the environmental justice community,” the CEQ said.

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