21 May 2021

WHEJAC Offers Key Environmental Justice Recommendations

On May 13, the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC or the Council) voted and agreed on recommendations to advance the Biden administration’s environmental justice (EJ) agenda. Housed within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the WHEJAC was established by Executive Order (EO) 14008 to recommend to the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council how to address current and historic EJ issues.

WHEJAC adopted recommendations of the three working groups: the Justice40 Initiative (Justice40), EO 12898, and Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool.

The Justice40 Initiative

As we discussed previously here, Justice40 seeks to deliver at least 40% of the overall benefits of climate investments to disadvantaged or underserved communities and inform equitable research, development, and deployment across the federal government. WHEJAC considered recommendations under four main categories: investment benefits, underserved communities, government institutions, and eligible Justice40 projects.

Investment Benefits. To measure whether the 40% goal is achieved, “investment benefits” must be defined. WHEJAC identified the following key elements for defining investment benefits:

  • Directly invest in geography: Invest in defined frontline affected geographies (by census tract or other designations) based on EJ criteria, such as Minneapolis Green Zones.
  • Directly invest in people: investments that provide benefits to Blacks, indigenous, Latinx, Asians, Pacific Islanders, people of color, and immigrants to improve health and economic opportunities.
  • Directly and indirectly invest in community: investments that support local communities, community-based organizations, community ownership, cooperatives, small business, community job training and local ownership tracks, etc.
  • 100% of investments must do no harm to EJ communities.

Underserved Communities. To target the right communities, an understanding of what are “underserved communities” must be established. WHEJAC offered a broad definition, which includes communities with the following characteristics: majority minority; high rate of health disparities; nonattainment of clear air and water standards; formerly redlined; food insecurity and child nutrition levels of a certain level; children receiving school lunch program; low-income households; certain number of superfund, waste, landfills, and toxic facilities; low-education attainment and low-high school graduation rates; high maternal and infant mortality rates; high asthma rates and deaths; poorly maintained  stock of housing; and lack of grocery stores.

Government Institutions. The WHEJAC emphasized that Justice40 is a “whole of government program applicable to all federal agencies and not limited to the federal agencies listed in the Executive Order 140008.” Hence, WHEJAC identified more than 20 government institutions and programs for the Justice40 Initiative, from the U.S. Congress to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Eligible Projects. To ensure that the proper projects are considered under the Initiative, the WHEJAC also recommended to define “eligible projects” broadly to include a range of climate and environmental projects under the following categories: Clean Energy & Energy Efficiency, Clean Transit & Transportation Investment; Safe, Affordable and Sustainable Housing; Training & Workforce Development; Remediation & Reduction of Legacy Pollution; Clean Water Infrastructure; Climate Mitigation and Resilience; and Community & University Partnerships.

Executive Order 12898

President Bill Clinton issued EO 12898 in 1994. Its purpose was to focus federal attention on EJ and achieve environmental protection for all communities. The WHEJAC has proposed a number of revisions to EO.12898 that would update the order, principally in two ways:

  • Defining additional terms. The 1994 EO directed federal agencies to achieve EJ but did not itself define the term. The WHEJAC proposes to update the order to define EJ to include just treatment, full protection, and cultural consideration; frame what is an EJ community; and establish what is meant by meaningful participation, a core component of the EJ framework.
  • Broadening federal agency responsibility. Under EO 12898, federal agencies developed EJ strategies and were charged with facilitating public participation and access to information. The WHEJAC proposes to more expressly provide that federal agency responsibilities include providing equitable access to decision-making processes, actions, resources, and benefits in order to build and ensure healthy, culturally vibrant, sustainable, and resilient environments.

Climate and EJ Screening Tool

The working group recommendations were consistent with the proposals discussed in the Council’s April 28 meeting (which we previously reported), outlining a range of inputs and metrics to ensure that the administration’s expansive EJ goals can be measured. For example, the WHEJAC offered two metrics for performance evaluation: the tracking of Justice40 investments and EPA enforcement actions. The Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool is set to be launched in July 2021.

Development of EJ Scorecard 

To further ensure that EJ targets will be tracked, the WHEJAC will form a workgroup to provide recommendations for the development of an EJ scorecard. President Joe Biden’s EO 14008 requires that by February 2022, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, in coordination with the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, the Administrator of the United States Digital Service, and other relevant agency heads publish an annual EJ scorecard detailing agency EJ performance measures. The EJ scorecard must provide clear performance metrics to ensure accountability.

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