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White House Equity Screening Tool Aims to Steer Justice40 Funds

The White House on Tuesday unveiled a broad environmental justice mapping tool for agencies to pinpoint long-ignored communities burdened with pollution and climate change impacts, a key step for plans to direct billions of dollars under the Justice40 effort.

The Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool will be used to identify “communities that have faced historic injustices” and ensure “they’re some of the first to see the benefits of climate action,” said Brenda Mallory, who chairs the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

The tool is currently listing more than 27,000 US communities as disadvantaged or partially disadvantaged, based on factors such as income, significant pollution exposures, climate risks from flooding and wildfires, lack of indoor plumbing, and lack of access to clean drinking water.

The CEQ labeled the just-released screening tool as “version 1.0″ as the administration will be working to further refine it with continuous updates in the years ahead.

‘A Positive Step’

Environmental justice advocates generally embraced the tool’s release, though they expressed the broad expectation that the administration needs to refine the mapping effort in future iterations.

“There is more work to do, but this is a positive step in the administration’s work to advance environmental justice for all,” said Richard Moore, co-coordinator of the Los Jardines Institute in Albuquerque, N.M., and a co-chair of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

The CEQ screening tool—which draws from other environmental equity mapping efforts long in use by the EPA and states such as California, Michigan, Maryland, and New Mexico—are key to President Joe Biden’s Justice40 effort to steer 40% of the benefits of climate, clean energy, affordable housing, and other investments to disadvantaged communities.

The administration has identified hundreds of federal programs it considers covered by Justice40, including more than 140 run by the Energy Department and more than 70 at the Environmental Protection Agency. They include EPA programs that received billions of dollars in additional funding under the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure package, from efforts to remove lead from drinking water service lines to programs helping schools transition to zero or low-emission buses.

Fine-Tuning Tool

The CEQ made several tweaks to the screening tool after launching a beta version earlier this year and inviting feedback from federal agencies, tribal nations, local governments, and environmental justice advocates and advisers including the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

Among the changes from that feedback: the maps now include communities “completely surrounded” by other disadvantaged communities, as long as they meet a certain low-income threshold. It also now takes a more expansive view of tribal areas considered disadvantaged, in part by identifying lands within boundaries of federally recognized tribes as well as locations of Alaska Native Villages.

Other changes include the addition of nine datasets to help identify disadvantaged communities drawn from projected climate risk data, including flooding and wildfire risks; barriers to transportation; redlining data showing communities facing historic underinvestment; and specific pollution data identifying communities close to abandoned mines and former defense sites.

CEQ’s improvements over the beta version shows the administration “heard and incorporated communities’ feedback” including those in New Mexico, Moore said.

The tool’s release pleased Catherine Coleman Flowers, founding director of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice and vice chair of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

“As someone who has fought for equitable access to water infrastructure across America, I’m grateful for a tool that outlines a path for federal agencies to deliver resources to those who need them most,” she said.

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