A new analysis found that the White House’s signature environmental justice program cannot narrow the racial disparity 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 inequities by directing 40 percent of the benefits from certain federal environmental investments to disadvantaged communities. But the Biden administration, in designing the program, deliberately removed race from the process of calculating who might benefit. The Supreme Court recently struck down race-based affirmative action in college admissions, a decision that some believe could affect federal environmental programs.
Unless carefully implemented, the program may not work as expected and may even widen the racial gap by improving air in whiter communities, which may also be disadvantaged in some ways, faster than communities of color, according to a peer-reviewed study published Thursday in the journal Science by researchers from several universities and environmental justice groups.
The investments involved in Justice40, which spans 19 federal agencies, are worth billions of dollars. “This is not just a money game,” said Robert Bullard, director of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice at Texas Southern University. The research of Dr. Bullard 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 a type of air pollution, known as PM 2.5, or fine particulate matter, across the country using a model of pollutants that move through the atmosphere.
The researchers compared the current “business as usual” trajectory of air quality improvements to two alternative scenarios where air quality in poor communities, as defined by the White House, improves at double or quadruple the overall rate. They found that although PM 2.5 pollution improved more quickly in these broadly defined disadvantaged communities, pollution remained worse for people of color.
“The results we have here are a piece of evidence that suggests if you don’t take race/ethnicity into account, 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 authors of the paper.
A spokesperson for the White House Council on Environmental Quality said the study made assumptions that do not reflect how the Justice40 initiative is being implemented.
Air pollution has generally improved in the United States since the Clean Air Act of 1970, although recent increases in wildfires are erasing some of that progress. This summer, Americans across the country were affected by wildfire smoke from wildfires in Canada, adding to the burden of communities exposed to poor air quality from other sources such as transportation, power plants and industrial facilities.
People of color in the United States breathe 14 percent more PM 2.5 pollution than the general population, according to a study Thursday. Low-income people, regardless of race, are also exposed to more of this type of pollution than the general population, but only about 3 percent more. Disadvantaged communities, as defined by the White House, face about 6 percent of this pollution.
PM 2.5 consists of microscopic particles in the air, small enough to enter people’s lungs and bloodstream. In the worst case, continued exposure can lead to lung cancer, heart attack or stroke. Estimates of deaths from air pollution vary, but one 2017 study found that PM 2.5 can be linked to nearly 90,000 premature deaths annually in the United States.
To facilitate Justice40 and direct environmental investment in poor communities, the White House Council on Environmental Quality created the Climate and Economic Justice Analysis Tool. The tool’s screening criteria 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 leave out race and ethnicity.
White House guidelines to individual federal agencies, however, give them leeway to direct their investment programs to more specific areas and populations within this broad category of “disadvantaged communities”.
A spokeswoman for the Council on Environmental Quality said via email, “This study examines a fictional scenario in which air quality investments are made haphazardly with no thought of actually reducing pollution from sources adverse to communities’ air.”
However, removing race from the primary screening tool has been criticized by activists and researchers. Race is not just one factor among many in determining American air quality, it is the “leading indicator,” said Manuel Salgado, a 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 was involved in research for the review.
Dr. Bullard, who is a member of the White House advisory council but was not involved in the study, said the new assessment is “probably the most comprehensive review I’ve seen to date” of the Justice40 screening tool.
Francesca Dominici, a data scientist at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health who has researched the uneven effects of air pollution but was not involved in this study, said the research was rigorous and based on “state of the art modeling.”
The White House screening tool is meant to be updated every year. Mr. Salgado of WE ACT suggested that the administration could use the existing screening tool in a more refined way, not only dividing the population into two discrete categories of “disadvantaged” and “not disadvantaged” but considering a spectrum of pollution and determining which communities are the heaviest burden.
This may be closer to the approach that individual federal agencies might take, as they decide how to manage the hundreds of smaller climate, energy and pollution control programs that fall under the Justice40 umbrella.