Environmental Justice Advocates Criticize Federal Assessment Tool

A tool designed to guide federal grant distribution may not prioritize the highest-need communities, while conflicting grant guidelines create challenges for local agencies.

2 minute read

March 9, 2023, 7:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

A screening tool employed by the federal government in classifying areas as “historically disadvantaged” is meeting with concern from environmental justice advocates who say the assessment doesn’t accurately identify “the places where residents have been hardest hit by pollution and other environmental harms.” Daniel C. Vock outlines the tool’s history and the controversy surrounding it in Route Fifty.

The tool, part of President Biden’s Justice40 initiative, is designed to direct federal grant funds to the communities that need it most. For example, “Advocates complained that the initial release failed to include Appalachian areas with abandoned coal mines, vast stretches of Alaska or places with multiple environmental and health threats.” But when the tool was updated to address those concerns, “the places that the White House added with updates were predominantly white and rural, and they do not face the types of cumulative danger found elsewhere,” according to Dana Johnson, the senior director of strategy and federal policy for WE ACT for Environmental Justice.

Vock explains that the administration opted against using race as a factor to avoid having to engage in the same protracted legal battles encountered by other federal programs. “A WE ACT analysis found that the percentage of white residents in neighborhoods identified by the White House screening tool increased by 4.5% after the revisions. The number of Hispanic residents decreased by 2.8% and Black residents decreased by 1.8%.”

The White House tool also differs from standards used by other federal agencies, which have developed their own methods for selecting grantees. “On top of that, 30 states and localities have developed similar screening tools, according to the Environmental Policy Innovation Center,” creating a headache for local agencies seeking grant funding. 

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