This past May, the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC) released a 92-page report advancing Justice40 commitments, the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, and Executive Order 12898 through a robust set of recommendations. President Biden established this Council at the start of his term and, now that the Council has released a formal guide, the president must use the Council’s recommendations to develop approaches that both, directly and indirectly, improve federal climate and environmental justice policy. With the race to pass federal legislation focused on infrastructure, climate investments, and environmental and social justice picking up, with key bills moving through both chambers of Congress, the insights in this report are more important than ever. Below are key insights into clean transportation, improved energy efficiency, and clean water – just a few areas integral to NYLCV’s work.
The transportation sector and public transit are vectors of environmental injustice, with inaccessibility to public transit, instability of infrastructure, and poor air quality burdening low-income, people of color, and elderly communities. The WHEJAC recognizes this inequity and proposes various recommendations to rectify it. For example, the report spotlights how although transit hubs- including train stations, airports, and bus stops- are areas of increased mobility, housing and business development, and investment in the United States, most of these transportation hubs are inaccessible to marginalized communities. This is furthering the equity gap and allowing certain areas to prosper while others struggle.
There are, however, examples of transit hubs that have allowed communities to flourish, with New York State’s WE ACT demonstrating the potential economic growth and accessibility improvements that come with investing in transit hubs. The “East 125th Community Visioning Action Plan,” an investment to extend a subway route to East Harlem, showed the power such investments have on the health and resiliency of a single neighborhood. By furthering investments nationally for such transit hubs, the country as a whole would benefit.
The WHEJAC also focused on the disproportionate impact of transportation emissions on many marginalized communities, calling for the electrification of school bus and sanitation truck fleets, as well as other public vehicles. While these emitters pose risks to the country as a whole, the diesel exhaust and particulate matter from these vehicles overburden environmental justice (EJ) communities and put the population at risk for a myriad of illnesses as exposure to poor air quality continues. By electrifying these fleets, transport efficiency and air quality will improve.
Energy efficiency is also a central focus of the report, prioritizing grant and funding programs to better equip rural and frontline communities for the renewable energy transition. One recommendation advanced by the group is directed at the question of green, equitable funding: the creation of a green bank. Low-cost green bank financing would allow individuals in frontline and low-income communities to access low-interest loans, funding solar energy, energy upgrades, and resiliency projects. Another strategy emphasized was the creation of “green zones.” Green zones encompass a wide variety of green benefits, with the most relevant for much of New York State being energy efficiency, green infrastructure, preparation against extreme heat, and electrification. The report emphasizes a variety of routes to better protect frontline and low-income communities, and in order to do so, there must be a movement to increase funding to the Department of Energy. This funding would work to implement renewable energy programs, with at least 40% of this funding being used to advance clean energy usage in disadvantaged communities.
With a detailed reading focused on clean water, it is clear that there is a strong motivation by the WHEJAC to ensure proper funding and aid to areas with contaminated water and to work on preventative measures in EJ communities. The first investment recommendation focuses on the expansion of the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF). The CWSRF provides funding and investment for water quality improvement projects nationally, with New York State matching funds equal to 20%. By prioritizing homes, residences, schools, and communities with a history of poor access to drinking water, this recommendation would help to protect and improve New York State’s water quality. The report recommends that Justice40 and federal infrastructure investments modernize the water infrastructure of rural America, again ensuring safe drinking water to low-income and community of color households.
While the report is substantial in length and content, it does its job in showing where there are inequities in the United States’ federal agenda and advising shifts in investment to promote environmental justice and Justice40 commitments. New York State is home to many frontline and disadvantaged individuals and communities that face environmental justice burdens daily, and this report sheds light on the opportunity to fix some of those wrongs.
by Meredith Enslow