A White House report that is designed to guide federal spending in disadvantaged communities recommends new protections for farmworkers, tighter regulatory scrutiny of pesticides and targeted incentives for expanding wind and solar power. 

The report by the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council grew out of an executive order signed by President Joe Biden a week after he took office, in which he set up the council to help implement the administration’s Justice40 Initiative, which seeks to direct 40% of certain federal investments to benefit communities that have been historically underserved.

Joe Biden

President Joe Biden

Biden’s executive order specified those investments as including “clean energy and energy efficiency; clean transit; affordable and sustainable housing; training and workforce development; the remediation and reduction of legacy pollution; and the development of critical clean water infrastructure.”

Using the committee's recommendations, Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory, Acting Director of the Office of Management and Budget Shalanda Young, and National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy will publish recommendations on how to target 40% of the overall benefits of investments to disadvantaged communities.

The report appears to take a dim view of biofuels, which are mentioned in passing through their inclusion in an opinion piece linked in the report. Biofuels, along with nuclear, biomass, carbon capture and sequestration and natural gas are technologies to be avoided, and strategies supporting them "are largely driven by the need to pacify powerful constituencies," said Jacqueline Patterson, director of the environmental and climate justice program at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in the op-ed.

Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Geoff Cooper, in a statement shared with Agri-Pulse, called it “surprising and disappointing that the advisory committee overlooked the benefits of renewable fuels. ... Ethanol reduces the harmful tailpipe pollution that disproportionately affects low-income and disadvantaged communities, and it slashes the greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to climate change. In addition, the increased use of ethanol reduces demand for petroleum fuels, which are often manufactured at large industrial refining complexes adjacent to, or in the middle of, urban and suburban neighborhoods."

"RFA encourages the committee to revisit the environmental, economic, and social benefits provided by renewable fuels, and we would welcome the opportunity to host committee members at an ethanol production facility so they can see these benefits up close and in person,” Cooper said.

Federal agencies are in the process of taking the recommendations in the report and identifying programs that could be used to implement them. A climate and economic justice screening tool that is in the works would help identify disadvantaged communities.

Cathleen Kelly, a senior fellow for energy and environment at the Center for American Progress, called the report “absolutely groundbreaking and historic” and took note of the short time frame the council had to prepare it.

“There’s going to have to be a lot of focus on strengthening federal investment programs across all of the agencies to make sure that they can actually deliver real and direct benefits to disadvantaged communities,” she said.

USDA and EPA programs receive a lot of attention in the report, including through a recommendation that the Rural Utilities Service’s electric programs “prioritize support for clean, distributed energy, and ensure 40% of funds are directed to disadvantaged communities.” USDA also should expand its Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) “to tax-exempt entities including nonprofits and government entities and increase program funding to $100 million per year to support tribal energy and energy efficiency projects.”

Kelly said underserved communities have in the past faced barriers in obtaining federal funding, “ranging from systemic racism, where the funding is just simply not allocated, either by the federal government or state governments.” Agencies could provide technical assistance to people applying for grants, she said.

Farmworker protection is prioritized in the report, which calls for the government to upgrade standards for farm labor camps “to mitigate the risks that climate change, extreme weather events and pandemics pose on migrant and seasonal farmworkers and their families.”

The report also notes there is “no federal standard to protect outdoor workers,” long sought by advocates for farm laborers — including in a petition submitted in 2018 by Public Citizen.

Michael Marsh, CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, said some of the report’s recommendations, such as “access to field sanitation and hand-washing facilities, training in use of and provision of protective equipment for pesticide application, (and) heat stress prevention plans,” have long been implemented by farmers and ranchers.

Michael Marsh

Michael Marsh, NCAE

“Farmers take the health and safety of their workforce very seriously and it is in the farmer’s self-interest to do so,” he said, adding that NCAE supports the report’s recommendation to invest in farm labor housing.

“Access to capital for farmers seeking to update and modernize housing for workers can sometimes be a challenge when farmer margins are as tight as they are when the banker is hoping you can pay them back,” Marsh said.

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Allison Crittenden, a congressional relations director at American Farm Bureau Federation, said, “I'm not sure if we need additional regulation on something so prescriptive, to manage any concerns regarding heat.” She noted that OSHA’s “general duty clause” is designed to protect employees from workplace hazards that are not covered by a specific standard.

Oscar Londoño, however, executive director of WeCount! In Miami, says a national heat standard is needed. “In 2016, here in Florida, there were more than 1,000 hospitalizations related to heat-related illness,” he said. California and Washington state have standards, and other states such as Colorado and Maryland are working toward them now.

Elements of a standard include mandated breaks during periods of extreme heat and access to clean and cool drinking water. In both construction and agriculture, he says, water may be available but inaccessible to the average worker.

On pesticides, the report calls for improving cost-benefit analyses “by considering the availability of safer alternatives early in the process and considering social costs of use of pesticides, (and) develop methods for gathering true exposure data showing the extent of farmworker exposure, rather than relying on industry-generated data.”

Crittenden said in general, AFBF hopes it will be included in conversations if and when regulatory measures are proposed to implement any of the recommendations.

On pesticide registrations, she said, “There are always ways to improve that process,” but added, “I think it's important to make sure that scientific experts are the ones involved in the decision-making process, and that (decisions are) based on the most accurate and realistic data.”

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