A new analysis has found that the White House’s signature environmental justice program may not shrink racial disparities in who breathes the most polluted air, in part because of efforts to ensure that it could withstand legal challenges.

The program, called Justice40, aims to address inequalities by directing 40 percent of the benefits from certain federal environmental investments toward disadvantaged communities. But the Biden administration, in designing the program, purposely omitted race from the process of calculating who could benefit. The Supreme Court recently struck down race-based affirmative action in college admissions, a ruling that some believe could affect federal environmental programs.

Unless carefully implemented, the program may not work as hoped and could even widen the racial gap by improving the air in whiter communities, which may also be disadvantaged in some ways, faster than in communities of color, according to a peer-reviewed study published Thursday in the journal Science by researchers from several universities and environmental justice groups.

The investments included in Justice40, which span 19 federal agencies, amount to billions of dollars. “This is not just play money,” said Robert Bullard, director of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice at Texas Southern University. Dr. Bullard’s research in the 1980s provided some of the earliest evidence that polluting facilities have been systematically sited near communities of color.

The new study predicts concentrations of one type of air pollution, known as PM 2.5, or fine particulate matter, throughout the country using a model of pollutants moving through the atmosphere.

The researchers compared the current “business as usual” trajectory in air quality improvements with two alternative scenarios in which air quality in disadvantaged communities, as defined by the White House, improves at double or quadruple the overall rate. They found that even if PM 2.5 pollution improved faster in these broadly defined disadvantaged communities, the pollution would remain significantly worse for people of color.

“The results we have here are one piece of evidence that suggests if you don’t account for race/ethnicity, then you won’t be addressing the disparities by race/ethnicity,” said Julian Marshall, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington and one of the paper’s authors.

A spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality said the study made assumptions that did not reflect how the Justice40 initiative is being implemented.

Air pollution has generally improved in the United States since the Clean Air Act of 1970, although recent increases in wildfires have been erasing some of that progress. This summer, Americans around the country have been affected by wildfire smoke from fires in Canada, which adds to the burden of communities exposed to poor air quality from other sources like transportation, power plants and industrial facilities.

People of color in the United States breathe 14 percent more PM 2.5 pollution than the overall population, according to Thursday’s study. People with low incomes, regardless of race, are also exposed to more of this kind of pollution than the general population, but only about 3 percent more. Disadvantaged communities, as defined by the White House, face about 6 percent more of this pollution.

PM 2.5 consists of microscopic particles in the air, small enough to enter people’s lungs and bloodstreams. In the worst cases, persistent exposure can lead to lung cancer, heart attacks or strokes. Estimates of deaths from air pollution vary, but one 2017 study found that PM 2.5 can be linked to almost 90,000 premature deaths annually in the United States.

In order to administer Justice40 and direct environmental investments to disadvantaged communities, the White House Council on Environmental Quality created the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool. The tool’s screening criteria include income and exposure to PM 2.5, as well as other local pollution, climate change impacts, energy costs, health, housing quality, education and employment, but leaves out race and ethnicity.

The White House’s guidelines to individual federal agencies, however, give them leeway to direct their programs’ investments to more specific places and populations within this broad “disadvantaged communities” category.

The spokeswoman for the Council on Environmental Quality said via email, “This study analyzes a fictional scenario with air quality investments being made haphazardly and without thought to actually cutting pollution from sources that are upwind of communities.”

Still, the omission of race in the primary screening tool is being criticized by activists and researchers. Race isn’t just one factor among many in determining American’s air quality, it’s “the top indicator,” said Manuel Salgado, a research analyst at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a nonprofit group. Mr. Salgado was not one of the authors of Thursday’s paper, but his organization was involved in research for the analysis.

Dr. Bullard, who is a member of the White House advisory council but was not involved in the study, said the new assessment was “probably the most comprehensive analysis I’ve seen to date” of the Justice40 screening tool.

Francesca Dominici, a data scientist at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health who has researched the unequal effects of air pollution but was not involved in this study, said the research was rigorous and based on “state of the art modeling.”

The White House screening tool is meant to be updated each year. Mr. Salgado of WE ACT suggested the administration could use the existing screening tool in a more refined way, not just dividing the population into two discrete categories of “disadvantaged” and “not disadvantaged” but considering a spectrum of pollution and identifying which communities are the most burdened.

This may be closer to the approach that individual federal agencies end up taking anyway, as they decide how to administer the hundreds of smaller climate, energy and pollution control programs that fall under the Justice40 umbrella.


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