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Biden Aims Billions of Dollars at Environmental Inequity Fight

April 2, 2021, 4:21 PM

President Joe Biden is looking to send an unprecedented amount of federal funding to help people living in areas that have been disproportionately harmed by air pollution, contaminated water, and other environmental impacts.

Biden’s $2.5 trillion infrastructure plan includes a host of transit, clean water, and other infrastructure projects repeatedly framed as tackling environmental and racial equity, including big funding increases that would particularly benefit low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

His plan comes on the heels of a just-passed $1.9 trillion stimulus package that included funds for air pollution monitoring and other environmental justice action, on top of stimulus payments and other assistance crucial to low-income households and communities of color disproportionately hurt by Covid-19.

The infrastructure plan in particular “puts environmental justice communities front and center, and does it through a lens of equity that we have not seen for quite some time,” said Alabama activist Catherine Flowers, who founded the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice.

The big concern now is ensuring local communities actually get some say in how that funding is disbursed, said the Rev. Leo Woodberry, executive director of the New Alpha Community Development Corp. and a Florence, S.C. pastor.

“If they can get this through, we want to make sure people in our communities are trained and getting jobs, and the money is not just going to be contractors,” he said.

The White House says the infrastructure plan would fulfill Biden’s campaign pledge to funnel 40% of the benefits of what the plan calls “climate and clean infrastructure investments” to address longstanding and persistent racial injustice.

Advocates and other plan supporters are likely shifting their efforts to protecting the big-ticket items in Biden’s plan as it moves through Congress, said Yardly Pollas, an attorney with the Venable LLP law firm closely tracking the package.

“Everybody, even in the environmental justice community, is going to be jockeying for keeping all of it in the plan,” said Pollas, a partner in Venable’s legislative and government affairs practice and former chief of staff for Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.).

Among the administration’s projects that target disadvantaged communities are:

Water Improvement

The infrastructure plan budgets $111 billion to improve drinking water in part by replacing all U.S. lead pipes and service lines plaguing low-income neighborhoods and communities of color for decades. That figures also includes efforts to upgrade and modernize America’s drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater systems, including across rural America.

Lead in water, particularly in aging cities and communities, has been in the spotlight in particular given the massive contamination in Flint, Mich.

It’s a big price tag—EPA awards the bulk of federal drinking water funding and has spent $138 billion, but that was over three decades. Biden’s plan may raise eyebrows for its cost, but U.S. water utilities will need $472.6 billion in improvements over the next 20 years, according to EPA figures.

Biden also earmarked $17 billion to curb polluted waterways.

“You hear historic used a lot, but this truly is historical, in finally dealing with rural wastewater” and other needs in rural areas that have for too long been neglected, Flowers said.

Air Remediation

The $17 billion is to fund cleanup and improvement of inland waterways and coastal ports, including the launch of a Healthy Ports Program that the White House says would “mitigate the cumulative impacts of air pollution on neighborhoods near ports, often communities of color.”

“You saw in Biden’s plan, an equity bent to it, pretty much in every subsection,” Pollas said. “So the White House is saying that they now are thinking differently in how they view infrastructure, and I like that—it’s inclusive, and that’s what people want to see.”

The $17 billion would be in addition to the $50 million that Congress approved in the stimulus package to improve air quality monitoring, distributed to state, local and tribal agencies and another $50 million approved for local and state efforts to identify and address disproportionate environmental and public health impacts for vulnerable populations.

Energy Efficiency Measures

The infrastructure plan also proposes significant funding to boost home weatherization and energy efficiency, including via the Energy Department’s Weatherization Assistance Program and other efforts, though a precise tally of all such efforts isn’t yet available.

Biden’s plan also will establish a $27 billion Clean Energy and Sustainability Accelerator to mobilize private investment into distributed energy resources—including decentralized, community-based sources—but also retrofits of residential, commercial and municipal buildings; and clean transportation.

The investments are to have a “particular focus on disadvantaged communities that have not yet benefited from clean energy investments,” according to the White House.

Biden’s clean energy “accelerator” echoes congressional proposals to scale up green bank financing currently provided by more than a dozen state and local green banks, which combined public and private capital to fund clean power projects, according to Reed Hundt, CEO for the Coalition for Green Capital.

The bank also would make at least 40% of its investments in disadvantaged communities that haven’t benefited from clean energy investments, consistent with Biden’s campaign pledge to ensure those communities gain significant benefits from such funding, Hundt said in a statement.

Existing green banks have backed more than $5 billion in investments in clean energy projects in states and local communities, much of it targeted toward low- and moderate-income households and communities, Hundt said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at dscott@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rebecca Baker at rbaker@bloombergindustry.com

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