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White House departures send tremors through environmental community

The resignations of two high-profile White House environmental officials have rattled activists who fear President Joe Biden will fail to deliver on his promises to tackle the pollution plaguing minority and low-income communities.

The abrupt exits of Cecilia Martinez and David Kieve from the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality within days of each other have sparked alarm among environmental justice experts, who had already been frustrated by what they see as the administration’s lack of progress in fulfilling Biden’s promises to fix historic environmental and economic problems.

Biden has put environmental justice — the movement to alleviate the pollution that takes a disproportionately heavy toll on communities of color and low-income and rural areas — at the top of his administration’s green agenda alongside battling climate change. His focus on the issue won praise from many communities that have long felt overlooked by the nation’s environmental regulators, though many advocates are growing impatient because they said the Biden administration has yet to take action on major initiatives.

The CEQ departures prompted three members of Biden’s White House Environmental Justice Advisory 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 fulfill its environmental justice goals. The letter, revealed exclusively to POLITICO, requested that the White House install an environmental justice expert in the Climate Policy Office led by chief domestic climate adviser Gina McCarthy to elevate the effort across its projects and programs.

“It was a big blow to being able to believe in the administration’s seriousness to its commitment of environmental justice,” Maria Lopez-Nuñez, a member of the advisory council and deputy director at Newark, N.J.-based Ironbound Community Corporation, said of the recent departures. “I have a lot of questions about what’s going on.”

The CEQ officials were the main point of contact with the administration for activists and members of that advisory council. Now only one of three officials focused on environmental justice at CEQ remains. The two CEQ departures also come ahead of a key deadline for unveiling 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 critical guidance for agencies to implement environmental justice initiatives.

Biden’s White House was always too short-staffed to achieve its ambitious environmental justice goals, according to activists and community organizers who’ve been most frustrated about the lack of progress on the president’s Justice40 Initiative, which aims to steer 40 percent of federal benefits to communities that face the heaviest burdens from pollution. They saw the administration’s environmental justice agenda falling victim to that portfolio being siloed within the CEQ which, despite being chaired by environmental justice ally Brenda Mallory, has historically been a resource-starved entity with little authority of its own.

“We’re concerned about the work staying on track,” said Dana Johnson, senior director of strategy and federal policy with WE ACT for Environmental Justice.

One of the writers of the letter to Klain, Beverly Wright, who runs 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.

“Everybody that environmental justice people were connected with are gone,” she said. “I’m speechless.”

Martinez declined to comment on her resignation, and attempts to contact Kieve were not successful.

A White House spokesperson defended the staffing levels, and said it was a priority for all the White House environmental staff. “Environmental Justice is integrated into the all of government approach in addressing the climate crisis that the President and this administration have championed. Everyone from Gina and [her deputy] Ali [Zaidi] on down work on environmental justice,” the spokesperson said.

The White House Office of Management and Budget and CEQ are nearing their self-imposed February deadline to publish a scorecard evaluating the administration’s record on improving outcomes in environmental justice communities — a key accountability measure for ensuring Biden lives up to his pledges, Johnson said.

Getting that across the finish line will be more challenging after Friday’s exit by Martinez, who spearheaded the CEQ’s environmental justice efforts, and Monday’s departure by Kieve, who focused on outreach to environmental groups.

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

“What’s going on in D.C. right now is very bothersome to me. Black people — now I can’t speak for anyone else — we’re kind of feeling like we’ve been thrown under the bus,” Wright said, adding that environmental justice “priorities have not been pushed higher to the top, and I think there’s some obstruction there.”

Several advisory council members and other environmental justice activists said the recent departures leave Corey Solow, Martinez’s deputy, as the last remaining White House official with environmental justice as their primary responsibility. To honor Biden’s vows to voters, he’ll need 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 council member who had just finished a call discussing the council’s meeting scheduled for next week.

The White House pushed back against charges that it devoted scant staff to environmental justice. A White House spokesperson said Mallory, the head of CEQ, is invested in the topic and that just at that body “there are numerous people working on environmental justice issues,” and the administration would soon announce new hires.

“Our work on Environmental Justice and Justice 40 doesn’t revolve on any singular staffer — it’s integrated in the all of government approach the President has championed and we look forward to announcing at some point soon additional personnel who will continue the great work that David and Cecilia have done in the first year of the administration,” the spokesperson said in a written statement.

Advocates said the anticipated CEQ guidance to agencies for assessing environmental justice priorities and implementing Justice40 has been slow to arrive. They worry agencies will push ahead with their own interpretations of the strategy, which could be problematic since their previous status quo approaches were not seen as benefiting many marginalized communities. Without clear guidance from CEQ, they say history risks repeating itself.

“My concern is that either each agency will do its own thing or they might not do anything — they might do the same old thing that they’ve always done,” said Ana Baptista, an associate director of the Tishman Environment and Design Center at The New School in New York City and an advisory council member.

How agencies interpret environmental justice initiatives could vary wildly because the Biden administration has not defined its most central terms, including whether the 40 percent of targeted “benefits” refer to actual spending, or even what constitutes “disadvantaged community.”

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

Advisory council members also have pushed agencies to more clearly explain how they are evaluating the environmental justice components of 21 programs identified for a pilot phase of Justice40. Agencies reviewing those programs were supposed to submit progress reports to the Office of Management and Budget last month, but none of the findings have been made public, said Rachel Cleetus, climate and energy policy director with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Baptista said she wants agency assumptions of what constitutes achieving equity, justice and other goals released for external review.

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

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

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