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Environmental Justice Funds Seen as Just a Start for Advocates

March 11, 2022, 8:07 PM

The Biden administration’s environmental justice efforts scored a big funding boost in the $1.5 trillion government spending bill, but advocates worry whether the increased attention can be sustained given years of promises that have failed to yield results in their communities.

One of the largest wins for the Environmental Protection Agency’s equity activities is the $100 million earmarked for its environmental justice programs, a sizable $83 million increase over fiscal 2021 funding.

The increase will support grants to disadvantaged communities but also allow the agency to bolster its ability to integrate environmental justice efforts across its entire mission, including clean air, clean water, toxic chemical, and waste management.

“As important as this funding is, it’s only a start,” said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a leading congressional voice in pushing for more attention to disadvantaged communities.

“We need the scale of the funding to meet the scale of the problem. And vulnerable communities need laws in place to hold polluters accountable and give them recourse against discriminatory policies,” and more input into permitting decisions, he said.

Funding Boosts

On top of the $100 million for environmental justice efforts, the fiscal 2022 spending measure offered a more modest $13 million boost for environment monitoring and enforcement—totaling $539 million. The EPA’s Superfund cleanups received $1.23 billion total in fiscal 2022 spending under the bill—a slight $27 million boost over fiscal 2021 levels.

Cleanup and redevelopment of Brownfields sites got a $1 million boost, to $92 million total. While those increases are minimal, Superfund and other waste cleanups were awarded billions of dollars in new money under the bipartisan infrastructure package in part to help long-neglected communities neighboring the sites.

That law directed $3.5 billion to Superfund cleanups over five years.

The House approved the omnibus measure (H.R. 2471) Wednesday, with the Senate on Thursday sending the bill that sets spending through Sept. 30 to President Joe Biden.

All-Agency Effort

Advocates say underserved communities will need more than just the funding for the EPA programs. The effort will take the all-of-government approach Biden promised when he took office.

“We’ve been fighting legacy pollution issues for communities that have been built on Superfund sites and landfills for 30 years, trying to find a way out,” said Beverly White, a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice.

More resources are needed to convert cleaned up waste sites into job-creating efforts such as solar energy projects that can benefit the communities, White said. “They need help from multiple agencies to have this resolved, and EPA in many ways is just a gateway to the all-of-government approach,” she said.

But, White added, she doesn’t see a process yet for broadening that effort beyond the EPA.

Significant Gains

EPA’s environmental justice efforts, particularly its Office of Environmental Justice—which coordinates efforts to address inequities across all EPA regional offices—is seeing significant gains under the spending measure, said Mustafa Santiago Ali, former senior adviser on EPA’s environmental justice efforts.

“This most definitely advances environmental justice,” and Superfund and other waste site cleanups now have “a much stronger foundation than we have had in a number of years,” said Ali, now the National Wildlife Federation’s vice president of environmental justice, climate, and community revitalization.

Ali and other advocates said that while increased funding is always welcomed, that funding is arriving as EPA leadership is vowing more aggressive enforcement to better protect communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, including more surprise inspections of polluting sites.

“Even where some of these are modest increases, it may be just as important how the agency is using those resources to actually benefit these communities,” he said.

Looking to Next Year

Many advocates are already looking ahead to next year to see whether recent gains in federal spending will hold, according to Dana Johnson, senior strategy and federal policy director for WE ACT for Environmental Justice.

“When we look to fiscal 2023 we will want to see spending really centering on environmental justice” beyond EPA, she said.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan in January announced the agency would beef up inspections of sites in and around disadvantaged communities, along with more air monitoring efforts, including use of the agency’s single-engine turboprop ASPECT plane, and hire additional air pollution inspectors.

Regan, who launched a tour of long-ignored communities in the fall, said too many communities had been suffering for “far too long"—with some communities waiting decades for results.

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com