Three Signs of Progress on Environmental Justice

January 20, 2022 | 9:15 am
Anita Desikan
Senior Analyst

As the Biden administration finishes its first year in office, we’ve been keeping an eye how well it is following through on its promises to prioritize equity and environmental justice policies at federal agencies. Some of the environmental justice and equity work the Biden administration has carried out is well known, such as the Justice40 Initiative, the establishment of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, and President Biden’s executive order on advancing racial equity.

However, environmental justice experts are rightfully concerned by some developments including the recent resignations of Cecilia Martinez and David Kieve, two high-profile officials from the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality. Maria Lopez-Nuñez, a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, said of the departures: “It was a big blow to being able to believe in the administration’s seriousness to its commitment of environmental justice. I have a lot of questions about what’s going on.”

Additionally, some agencies have yet to advance tangible policy changes to address racial equity. For instance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is failing to implement equity-based standards recommended by its own advisory panel to ensure that disaster relief funds are not systematically favoring white or high-income individuals over low-income individuals or people of color.

Considering the long history of both the successes and abject failures on equity and environmental justice policies at the federal level, it is far too soon to tell whether the Biden administration will be able to achieve its goals. It will take years of work to dismantle decades of policies based on a legacy of white supremacy. Therefore, the Biden administration must use the rest of its time in power to fully implement equitable and science-based policies that provide lasting relief to historically marginalized communities facing environmental hazards.

Still, some important steps have been taken. Below are three lesser-known but important efforts by federal agencies to incorporate equity, address environmental justice concerns, and support marginalized communities across the nation.

The EPA and DOJ strengthen environmental enforcement

Science-based laws, such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Toxic Substances Control Act, were enacted to protect people from exposure to potentially dangerous environmental hazards. But these laws depend on agencies—particularly the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Justice (DOJ)—to fully enforce them and prosecute those who violate them.

For decades, environmental justice advocates have touted the need for strong environmental enforcement in marginalized communities. Now the EPA and the DOJ appear to be listening. While it is still too early to assess how these agencies will implement these actions and what their impact will be, they represent promising steps in the right direction.

The EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance issued a series of memos directing all its offices to strengthen enforcement in communities with environmental justice concerns; to use its criminal enforcement program to further environmental justice; and to hold responsible parties accountable for the cleanup of hazardous substances in communities. The DOJ is currently working on an enforcement strategy to protect low-income communities and communities of color. Senior DOJ officials have stated that the agency is focusing on more “vigorous [environmental] enforcement,” particularly for corporate environmental crimes.

The CDC acknowledges racism’s impact

In April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared racism a serious public health threat. This is a major win for both science and equity, since there is a large body of evidence showing that racism is a fundamental driver of racial and ethnic health disparities in the United States. For instance, the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate impact on communities of color is rooted in racist structural processes that have disenfranchised Black, Indigenous, and people of color for generations.

This public declaration has led the CDC to start to use its resources to address racism, including by opening up major funding, research, program, and policy initiatives for health equity. The CDC has also created specialized research and program initiatives aimed at helping communities of color. For instance, the CDC recently published data showing that HIV prevention and treatment services are used less often by Black and Latino gay and bisexual men than they are by their White counterparts, indicating that there is a need to improve access to these health services to better serve individuals in these racial groups.

Additionally, this action fulfills a major request by some 1,200 CDC employees – or more than 10 percent of the workforce – who in June 2020 wrote a letter to the CDC urging them to address “ongoing and recurring acts of racism and discrimination” against Black employees. The CDC has announced that is currently trying to institute internal changes in an attempt to serve as a model for organizational and workforce diversity and inclusion.

The White House elevates Indigenous knowledge

In November, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) released a memo saying that they were committed to elevating Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge in federal scientific and policy processes. Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge refers to evolving knowledge acquired by Indigenous people over the years, sometimes over the centuries, through direct contact with the environment. While there have been previous attempts at federal agencies to incorporate Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge– for instance at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Forest Service, and the EPA –science-based federal agencies are, for the most part, not readily incorporating this evidence into their scientific, programmatic, or policymaking activities.

By formally recognizing Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge as one of the many important bodies of knowledge that contribute to scientific understanding, the Biden White House is highlighting the importance of incorporating Indigenous science into agency processes. The memo also outlines methods to afford due respect to the lived experience of Indigenous people and officially acknowledge the importance this knowledge deserves. For instance, the memo describes the importance of engaging with Indigenous communities on the use of this knowledge in a transparent manner, with full acknowledgment that Indigenous people are the owners of this knowledge and have the rights over the access, permission, and application of this knowledge.

This memo will likely lead to further federal efforts to engage with and support Indigenous communities and tribal nations. For instance, in November 2021, eight federal agencies committed to improving the protection and access to Indigenous sacred sites. This included increasing collaboration with Indigenous tribes to ensure stewardship of sacred sites and the incorporation of traditional ecological knowledge in the management, treatment, and protection of these sites.

People deserve protection from environmental hazards

American history is replete with examples of Black, Indigenous, people of color, low-income, rural, and other historically marginalized communities bearing the brunt of environmental hazards from their proximity to toxic waste sites, landfills, congested highways, polluting industrial facilities, and fossil fuel extraction sites compared with white or more affluent communities. The science suggests that exposure to these environmental hazards carries enormous and life-long health burdens, such as an increased risk of heart disease, asthma attacks, and premature death.

This sorry history makes it all the more imperative that federal agencies work to overhaul their processes and prioritize equity and environmental justice at all levels of agency work. The Biden administration has expressed a commitment to its equity and environmental justice goals and the commitment has already resulted in some prominent successes. Now, the administration will need to fully center equity and environmental justice in its scientific, policy, and enforcement work over the next several years, making sure that environmental justice efforts are provided with the resources and staff needed to carry out this important work. Only then will they be able to create tangible, meaningful, and long-lasting public health and environmental changes we need to protect marginalized communities.