Environmental justice advocates see 2022 as a make-or-break year.
President Joe Biden’s administration launched several big initiatives in 2021, from securing more money to improve drinking water quality and clean up Superfund sites to creating a screening tool to better highlight environmental justice communities. But advocates say those initiatives need to become action, particularly in poorer communities that have been disproportionately hit by pollution.
Biden must show he hasn’t forgotten Black and other marginalized voters who were crucial to his 2020 win, advocates say. Without progress, they fear, Republicans could take control of one or both chambers and push for spending cuts that could put equity efforts at risk.
“If we don’t get this stuff together real fast, you’re going to be marching into the midterms with a lot of people saying, ‘OK, show us the results,’” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, former head of EPA’s environmental justice office.
Ali argues the administration should select roughly 500 U.S. projects—10 in each state—to showcase results “so that everybody knows they’re not being forgotten and they’re valued.”
It takes time to develop strategies, get inspections done, and start enforcement work, former Environmental Protection Agency air enforcement director Bruce Buckheit said. But he noted that after 11 months, “we should, by now, be seeing the initial results of their efforts.”
“EPA needs to get back into the business of managing oversight, overseeing state inspections, and getting out in the field itself to do more enforcement inspections,” he said.
Administrative Action Urged
Better coordination on justice initiatives with regional offices, and following through on promises for goals such as the screening tool, should be top Biden priorities for marginalized communities, advocates said.
Beefing up EPA enforcement action also “can make a significant difference in the community that’s traditionally underserved if there’s water quality violations, drinking water violations, hazardous waste violations, air pollution,” said Clifford Villa, a University of New Mexico law professor who studies environmental justice.
“All that can can often be addressed in some significant part by administrative action,” he said. “And there’s absolutely nothing holding EPA back other than will.”
The EPA, in a year-end summary of its accomplishments, pointed to its success in leveraging enforcement to protect overburdened communities from pollution. It cited its May order to shut down a U.S. Virgin Islands refinery—only the fourth time it has moved to halt operations under Section 303 of the Clean Air Act.
Advocates say Biden needs to show progress for his Justice40 effort, which aims to direct 40% of benefits from clean energy, climate, and other funding to communities suffering disproportionately from decades of air, water, and chemical pollution.
“For this next year, I would like to see the government take the responsibility to make sure that everyone has a right to sanitation and clean water,” said Catherine Flowers, an Alabama activist who founded the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice.
The administration is developing additional tools to help agencies determine the kinds of funding, projects, and policies that would be counted toward that 40% goal in building on interim guidance issued in July by the Office of Management and Budget and the Council on Environmental Quality.
That guidance launched 21 pilot programs at EPA and other agencies to immediately steer benefits to disadvantaged communities and provide a blueprint for other agencies.
The screening tool, dubbed the Climate and Environmental Justice Screening Tool, is on track to be rolled out perhaps as soon as early 2022, following a beta test. Its completion is a priority to ensuring that Biden’s effort to help overburdened communities realize that 40% benefit, Flowers said, “and help identify those communities most in need.”
The administration also is expected to roll out policies to implement its environmental justice scorecard by mid-2022 to ensure each agency’s commitment to more equitable treatment of people of color and polluted communities can be measured.
Biden’s January 2021 executive order on climate and environmental equity directed OMB and CEQ to publish the annual scorecard by February 2022. OMB declined to provide an update on that timetable.
The administration fell short in 2020 in getting two senior EPA leads, including one requiring Senate confirmation, in place to boost environmental justice programs and enforcement.
The first, to be appointed by EPA Administrator Michael Regan, would put an environmental justice adviser in the Office of the Administrator, elevating the issue among a small group of leaders focused on science, civil rights, children’s health, congressional affairs, and other matters.
A second post—a new assistant administrator for environmental justice—would head up a newly created national office, essentially reorganizing EPA’s existing Office of Environmental Justice.
An EPA spokesman said Regan is expected to shortly settle on an EJ adviser. The separate Senate-confirmed post will need Congress’ authorization, he said, so will hinge on congressional progress on fiscal 2022 government-wide spending measures, including EPA’s.
Build Back Better Holdup
Congressional Democrats point to billions in added funding for clean water projects, removing lead pipes, and other projects benefiting poorer communities in the bipartisan infrastructure package signed in 2021.
They note even more resources would help communities under Biden’s Build Back Better tax and spending package. The package, stalled in the Senate, faces an uncertain outlook.
“We seem to be getting bipartisan support” for funding to address pollution that disproportionately impacts marginalized communities, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told Bloomberg Law.
The success of the infrastructure package suggests bipartisan support can continue to address environmental justice needs through the annual appropriations process, Cardin said.
Additional environmental equity provisions, including a new federal green bank known as the Clean Energy and Sustainability Accelerator, hinge on passage of Build Back Better, he said.
Getting clearer messaging and directives to regional EPA offices on environmental justice—and not just agency slogans—would go a long way toward realizing some of these goals, Villa said.
“We need people to go out to these communities and look around and breathe,” Villa said. “It might be that all the industrial facilities are in compliance with their Clean Air Act permit, but the cumulative impacts on a particular neighborhood surrounded by these facilities can be pretty significant.”
Biden’s record in curbing U.S. reliance on fossil fuels has been mixed, said Michael Dorsey, co-founder of the California-based Center for Environmental Health and partner in the Ibersun solar firm. The administration has endured criticism for holding large oil and gas lease sales on federal land, among other actions.
Dorsey called for an embargo on what he described as “policy schizophrenia.”
“One day they are continuing fossil fuel subsidies and on the next they come out with proclamations on renewable energy and green transmission architecture and infrastructure that we need,” he said. “We’ve got to break that cycle.”