New analysis He found that the White House’s signature environmental justice program may not reduce racial disparities in who breathes the most polluted air, in part because of efforts to ensure it can withstand legal challenges.
The program, called Justice40, aims to address inequality by directing 40 percent of benefits from certain federal environmental investments toward disadvantaged communities. But the Biden administration, when designing the program, deliberately omitted from the process of calculating who could benefit. The Supreme Court recently struck down affirmative action based on race in college admissions, a ruling that some believe could affect federal environmental programs.
Unless carefully implemented, the program may not work as well as hoped and could even widen the racial divide by improving the air in whiter communities, which may also be disadvantaged in some ways, faster than in communities of color, according to The peer-reviewed study was published Thursday In the journal Science by researchers from several universities and environmental justice groups.
The investments listed on Justice40, which cover 19 federal agencies, run into billions of dollars. “This is not just play money,” said Robert Pollard, director of the Pollard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice at Texas Southern University. Dr. Pollard’s research in the 1980s provided some of the earliest evidence that polluting facilities were systematically located near communities of color.
The new study predicts concentrations of one type of air pollution, known as PM 2.5, or fine particulate matter, across the country using a model of the pollutants traveling through the atmosphere.
The researchers compared the current “business as usual” trajectory of air quality improvement with two alternative scenarios in which air quality in disadvantaged communities, as defined by the White House, improves at double or quadruple the overall rate. They found that even if PM 2.5 pollution improved faster in these broadly disadvantaged communities, the pollution would still be much worse for people of color.
“Our findings here are one piece of evidence to suggest that if you don’t account for race/ethnicity, you don’t address disparities by race/ethnicity,” said Julian Marshall, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington and one of the paper’s authors.
A spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality said the study made assumptions that did not reflect how the Justice40 initiative was implemented.
Air pollution has generally improved in the United States since the Clean Air Act of 1970, though recent increases in wildfires have erased some of that progress. This summer, Americans across the country have been affected by wildfire smoke from the fires in Canada, adding to the burden on communities exposed to poor air quality from other sources such as transportation, power plants, and industrial facilities.
A study Thursday showed that people of color in the United States breathe 14 percent more PM 2.5 pollution than the general population. Low-income people, regardless of race, are also exposed to this type of pollution more than the general population, but only more than 3 percent. Underserved communities, as determined by the White House, face about 6 percent more of this pollution.
PM 2.5 consists of microscopic particles in the air, small enough to enter the lungs and bloodstream. In the worst case, continued exposure can lead to lung cancer, heart attacks, or strokes. Estimates of deaths from air pollution vary, but one is the same Study 2017 found that PM 2.5 could be linked to nearly 90,000 premature deaths per year in the United States.
In order to manage Justice40 and direct environmental investments to disadvantaged communities, he created the White House Council on Environmental Quality Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool. Screening criteria for the tool include income and exposure to PM 2.5, as well as other local pollution, climate change impacts, energy costs, health, housing quality, education and employment, but exclude race and ethnicity.
However, the White House’s guidance to individual federal agencies gives them space to direct their program investments to more specific places and populations within this broad category of “disadvantaged communities.”
A spokeswoman for the Council for Environmental Quality said via email, “This study analyzes a fictional scenario with air quality investments made haphazardly and without thought to reduce pollution from sources that are upwind of communities.”
However, the omission of race in the primary screener is criticized by activists and researchers. Race isn’t just one factor among many in determining American air quality, it’s “the top indicator,” said Manuel Salgado, research analyst at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a nonprofit group. Mr. Salgado was not one of the authors of Thursday’s paper, but his organization participated in the research for the analysis.
Dr. Pollard, who sits on the White House advisory board but was not involved in the study, said the new evaluation was “probably the most comprehensive analysis I’ve seen yet” of the Justice40 screening tool.
The research was rigorous and based on “the latest models,” said Francesca Domenici, a data scientist at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health who has researched the disproportionate effects of air pollution but was not involved in this study.
The White House Scanner is supposed to be updated every year. Mr Salgado of WE ACT suggested that the administration could use the existing screening tool in a more nuanced way, not only dividing the population into two separate categories of ‘disadvantaged’ and ‘non-disadvantaged’ but looking at a range of pollution and identifying the communities with the greatest burden.
This may be akin to the approach individual federal agencies end up taking anyway, deciding how to manage the hundreds of smaller climate, energy and pollution control programs that fall under the umbrella of Justice40.