Will the Biden Administration Invest in Environmental Justice Reforms?

Darya Minovi
Rebecca Bratspies

Dec. 9, 2020

On October 22, we and millions of Americans watched the final presidential debate, taking in each candidate's plan for oft-discussed issues like health care, the economy, and foreign policy. Toward the end, the moderator posed a question that caught us and many others off guard: She asked the candidates how they would address the disproportionate and harmful impacts of the oil and chemical industries on people of color.

President Trump largely ignored the question. But former Vice President Joe Biden addressed it head on, sharing his own experience growing up near Delaware oil refineries and calling for restrictions on "fenceline emissions" — the pollution levels observed at the boundary of a facility's property, which too often abuts a residential neighborhood.

Many environmental justice advocates celebrated Biden's response, including Mustafa Santiago Ali, the former assistant administrator for environmental justice at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who characterized Biden's response as "historic and transformational, because it puts an even bigger spotlight on the issue — the challenges and impacts, but also the opportunities." Ali is now being considered to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Less than three weeks later, Biden was elected president of the United States, making it possible for him to turn his campaign promises into action. Biden's Plan to Secure Environmental Justice and Equitable Economic Opportunity declares that environmental justice is core to his climate plan.

He pledges to:

  • Elevate and establish environmental justice bodies at the White House and the U.S. Department of Justice;

  • Create a Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, which will build off EPA's existing ""EJSCREEN" tool and be used to help identify overburdened communities;

  • Require hazardous facilities to monitor fenceline pollution levels and notify nearby communities of toxic releases;

  • Set enforceable limits on toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemicals in drinking water;

  • Prioritize low-income and communities of color for clean energy investments; and

  • Establish bodies at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that will tackle the disproportionate health impacts of climate change.

Biden's plans to transition to clean energy and tackle the climate emergency reiterate his commitment to environmental justice.

These proposals reflect priorities championed by environmental justice leaders and included in the Environmental Justice for All Act, introduced this summer by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Tammy Duckworth (Ill.).

However, some advocates remain skeptical about whether Biden will deliver.

The administration is inheriting a "gutted and booby-trapped" EPA after Trump's full-on attack on scientific integrity and regulatory safeguards over the last four years. Under Trump, the EPA rolled back more than 100 environmental regulations and delayed action on many others.

The agency limited the number of federal infrastructure projects subject to review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA); delayed and weakened the Obama-era Chemical Disaster Rule, which requires industrial plants to notify local communities of dangerous chemicals being stored onsite; proposed the misleadingly titled "Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science" rule, which will effectively knock the best science out of EPA's regulatory decision-making process; and more. The administration also proposed a 71 percent cut in funding for EPA's environmental justice office in its 2021 budget.

The incoming administration will face an uphill battle in its effort to undo the ill effects of Trump's assault — let alone establish stronger regulations and create new environmental justice bodies.

One encouraging aspect of Biden's plan is its inclusion of "cumulative impacts" — a term long championed by environmental justice advocates. Cumulative impacts analysis recognizes that the whole of environmental and social stressors is greater than the sum of their parts.

One common approach for assessing cumulative impacts is through environmental justice screening tools. EPA's current "EJSCREEN" tool maps 11 separate environmental indicators with demographic data, but it does not account for the cumulative impacts of pollution. Biden wants to add critical climate indicators to his proposed Climate and Economic Justice Screening tool, as well as more accurately quantify synergistic effects and use the tool to identify "disadvantaged" or "overburdened" communities.

It is critical that Biden deliver on his commitment to consult affected communities in this process. Heavily polluted neighborhoods in Baltimore, Maryland, and Newark, New Jersey, may have similar demographic and economic makeups, but community members may have different perspectives about being defined as "disadvantaged."

Furthermore, criteria that applies to one community may not apply to another, and the quality of data varies by state, making it difficult to compare communities across regions. For example, New Jersey policymakers worked with environmental justice advocates to define the phrase "overburdened community" when drafting a recent environmental justice bill. The definition was determined with community input and based on the demographic makeup of the state and target locales. New York is engaged in a similar community-led consultation process to identify "disadvantaged communities" under its landmark Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The Biden administration would also be wise to look to leaders in California who developed CalEnviroScreen, a screening tool developed with environmental and public health indicators relevant to the state and with input from affected communities.

Genuine community involvement across a wide swath of environmental decision-making is critical if Biden is to deliver on his commitment to promote environmental justice.

Statutes such as NEPA; the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA, also known as Superfund); and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) already require some degree of community involvement.

During the Trump years (and too often before that), those requirements were honored largely in the breach. Communities were notified about decisions that had been made elsewhere, without their input and often prioritizing the needs of others. So-called community engagement happened in name only — in locations and formats that were not accessible to many in affected communities.

Changing these practices to achieve real and meaningful community involvement at the earliest stages of environmental decisionmaking — when the problems are defined, and the alternatives are identified — would indeed be a major step forward. By ensuring that community voices and aspirations help shape the contours of environmental decisions, Biden could make environmental justice a real element of regulatory decisions.

Doing so would ensure better decision-making overall because it would draw attention to the distribution of costs and benefits across communities, not merely to their magnitude. Involving frontline communities in a meaningful way will increase the likelihood of fair treatment.

Moreover, many overburdened communities have their own visions of what environmental justice means for them. Making sure they can claim their seat at the table will mean that their aspirations for their waterfronts, renewable energy generation, and integrating job creation into sustainability efforts are part of the national conversation about how to respond to the grave challenges we face.

Whether Biden is able to secure environmental justice while restoring the nation's devastated administrative infrastructure remains to be seen. What is clear is that environmental justice advocates are a force to be reckoned with, and Biden's plan is a huge milestone on a long road to undo a legacy of environmental injustice.

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