White House departures send tremors through environmental community

The CEQ departures prompted three members of Biden’s environmental justice advisor to the White House Council, including its co-chair, to write to White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain on Monday, asking him to explain how the administration plans to meet its environmental justice goals. The letter, exclusively revealed to POLITICO, the White House has called for an environmental justice expert to be installed at the Office of Climate Action, headed by senior national climate adviser Gina McCarthy, to increase effort in its projects and programs.

“It was a blow to believe in the seriousness of the government’s commitment to environmental justice,” Maria Lopez-Nuñez, advisory board member and associate director of Newark, NJ-based Ironbound Community Corporation, said in recent departures. “I have a lot of questions about what’s going on.”

The CEQ officers were the main point of contact with the administration for activists and members of this advisory board. Now only one of three officers remains focused on environmental justice at CEQ. The CEQ’s two departures also come before a key deadline for the unveiling of one of the administration’s most anticipated tools: an environmental justice scorecard that would track the administration’s progress toward its goals, as well as key guidance for agencies to implement initiatives for environmental justice.

Biden’s White House has always been understaffed to meet his ambitious environmental justice goals, according to activists and community organizers, who have been most frustrated by the lack of progress on the president’s Justice40 initiative, which aims to close 40 percent of federal benefits steer communities that face the greatest stresses from pollution. They saw the government’s environmental justice agenda fall victim to this portfolio becoming isolated within the CEQ, which, although led by environmental justice ally Brenda Mallory, has historically been a resource-poor entity with little authority of its own.

“We are concerned that the work remains on track,” said Dana Johnson, senior director of strategy and federal policy at WE ACT for Environmental Justice.

One of the authors of the letter to Klain, Beverly Wright, who directs the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, said McCarthy’s office does not appear to prioritize environmental justice and the departures were an “obvious” blow.

“Everyone that people have been associated with for environmental justice is gone,” she said. “I’m speechless.”

Martinez declined to comment on her resignation and attempts to contact Kieve were unsuccessful.

A White House spokesman defended the staffing, saying it was a priority for all White House environmental workers. “Environmental justice is built into the overall government approach to addressing the climate crisis that the President and this administration have championed. All, from Gina and [her deputy] but [Zaidi] to work on environmental justice,” the spokesman said.

The White House Office of Management and Budget and CEQ are nearing their self-imposed February deadline to release a scorecard evaluating the administration’s track record of improving outcomes in environmental justice communities — a key accountability measure to ensure Biden is delivering on his commitments, said Johnson.

Getting that across the finish line will be more difficult following Friday’s departure of Martinez, who led the CEQ’s environmental justice efforts, and Monday’s departure of Kieve, who focused on outreach to environmental groups.

Martinez’s position was new, part of Biden’s efforts to fulfill his promises to Black, Latino and other people of color who helped him take the presidency last November.

“What’s going on in DC right now is very annoying to me. Black people — now I can’t speak for others — we feel like we’ve been thrown under the bus,” Wright said, adding to that environment of Justice. “Priorities haven’t been pushed up, and I think there’s an impediment there .”

Several advisory board members and other environmental justice activists said the recent departures have left Corey Solow, Martinez’s deputy, as the last remaining White House official with environmental justice as his primary responsibility. To fulfill Biden’s vows to voters, he would have to devote more resources, time and results, they said.

“Corey is the only one left,” said Harold Mitchell Jr., executive director of ReGenesis Community Development Corp. and advisory board Member who had just finished a call regarding the Council meeting scheduled for next week.

The White House has resisted allegations that it had under-deployed environmental justice staff. A White House spokesman said Mallory, the head of the CEQ, is involved in the issue and that “there are a lot of people working on environmental justice issues” on that body right now, and the administration will be announcing new staff soon.

“Our work on Environmental Justice and Justice 40 isn’t centered around a single staffer – it’s integrated into the overall approach to government that the President has championed, and we look forward to announcing additional personnel soon that will support the great.” work done by David and Cecilia in the first year of government,” the spokesman said in a written statement.

Advocates said expected CEQ guidance for agencies to assess environmental justice priorities and implement Justice40 has been slow to arrive. They fear the agencies will push their own interpretations of the strategy, which could be problematic as their previous status quo approaches have not been seen as beneficial to many marginalized communities. Without clear guidance from CEQ, there is a risk that history will repeat itself.

“My concern is that either each agency is doing their own thing, or they’re not doing anything — they could be doing the same thing they’ve always done,” said Ana Baptista, associate director of the Tishman Environment and Design Center at The New School in New York City and Advisory Board member.

How agencies interpret environmental justice initiatives could vary wild because the Biden administration hasn’t defined its key terms, including whether the 40 percent targeted “benefits” relate to actual spending or even what constitutes a “disadvantaged community.”

The White House spokesman told POLITICO that a preliminary version of a long-awaited environmental justice screening tool designed to fill those gaps will be released soon. The spokesperson said the tool “will be continually updated and refined based on feedback and research” and will “improve consistency — across the federal government — in how agencies implement programs and initiatives,” including identifying disadvantaged communities.

Advisory Board members have also urged agencies to explain more clearly how they assess the environmental justice components of 21 programs identified for a pilot phase of Justice40. Agencies reviewing these programs were due to submit progress reports to the Office of Management and Budget last month, but none of the findings have been released, said Rachel Cleetus, director of climate and energy policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Baptista said she would like the agency’s assumptions about what constitutes the achievement of equity, equity and other goals to be released for external scrutiny.

Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), who has championed the issue in Congress and helped write Biden’s campaign platform on the issue, commended Martinez and her office for steering the federal government in a clearer direction toward environmental justice .

“She really was the architect, if you will, to put the White House in a position that we could talk about [environmental justice] as an issue where we could talk about Justice40,” he told POLITICO. “Things have gone well because of her. I think there are still some things that need to be hammered out and worked out.”

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