The EPA is grappling with how to award $50 million in use-it-or-lose-it grant funding over the next 15 months to help marginalized communities bearing the brunt of pollution, agency officials told an advisory panel during a two-day meeting ending Thursday.
The $50 million is a significant boost for the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice grants, which in previous years barely topped $1 million, officials said.
But the funding infusion comes with some strings: EPA now must scale up its grant program and then award all of the new money before the next fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, 2023, a deadline set by congressional appropriators.
The funding shows the agency is paying more than “lip service” to environmental justice concerns, which haven’t always been an EPA priority since it formed its environmental justice office 30 years ago, EPA Administrator Michael Regan told members of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council Thursday. The panel, made up of advocates, academics, and state and tribal representatives, advises EPA on environmental equity issues.
National environmental progress hasn’t always benefited “all people and certainly not all our communities,” Regan said. “The journey has not always followed a straight line,” he said. “We’ve come a long way but we have a long way to go.”
The EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice for years has been funded at roughly $15 million annually, Matthew Tejada, the office’s director, said Wednesday. In recent years, the office was able to offer only $1.2 million to $1.5 million a year for grants, essentially what was left after paying the office’s salaries, rent, the costs of running the NEJAC panel, and ongoing work on EPA’s environmental justice screening tool, he said.
“We were literally scraping the bottom of the barrel” for grant awards, Tejada said. Grants were typically funded “after we pay the bills we have to pay.”
The grants, some of which will be steered to help build expertise in communities facing disproportionate levels of air, water, and chemical pollution, come amid a Biden administration effort to push all agencies to tackle environmental inequities. Regan in January unveiled plans to beef up EPA inspections of sites in and around disadvantaged communities with surprise inspections, more air monitoring, and hiring additional air pollution inspectors.
Turn of Fortune
EPA’s environmental justice efforts have won landmark spending increases under President Joe Biden’s administration. The 2021 Covid-19 relief package earmarked $100 million for EPA environmental justice efforts and community air monitoring, and a fiscal 2022 spending bill Biden signed in March awarded EPA another $100 million for environmental justice.
To gear up for the increased grant funding, the agency’s environmental justice office has been developing a detailed strategy with multiple technical centers, or hubs, to be offered in various EPA regions, said Jacob Burney, who is leading efforts to scale up the office’s grant and technical assistance efforts.
The plan includes expanding environmental justice expertise through the launch of Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers, and the agency plans to formally request funding applications for the centers sometime this summer, Burney said.
The effort could begin with a few initial centers placed in EPA regions with significant environmental justice challenges, such as Regions 1, 2, and 4, Burney said, which span New England, New York and New Jersey, and southern states. The exact locations of those first hubs will depend on the applications it receives and the location and expertise of the applicants, he said.
EPA’s plan is “to start with an initial set of those centers and build out and strengthen them over time,” he said.
EPA also is looking to coordinate its efforts with the departments of Energy, Agriculture, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development, which are also looking to provide more technical assistance to promote environmental equity using funding awarded under the 2021 infrastructure package, he said.
The Biden administration is also seeking significant environmental justice funding next year under the president’s fiscal 2023 budget request unveiled in March.
The budget plan would provide $1.45 billion across dozens of EPA programs to clean up pollution and assist overburdened communities, but also requests increases for the Energy Department’s environmental justice efforts and $1.4 million for a new Justice Department environmental justice office.