The Biden administration’s environmental justice efforts have dramatically increased funding for the $1.5 trillion government spending bill, but supporters worry whether the increased attention can be sustained given years of promises that have not yielded results in their communities.
One of the most significant gains for the Environmental Protection Agency’s equity activities is the $100 million allocated to its environmental justice programs, a significant increase of $83 million over fiscal year funding. 2021.
The increase will support grants to underprivileged communities, but will also allow the agency to strengthen its ability to integrate environmental justice efforts across its mission, including clean air, clean water, products toxic chemicals and waste management.
“As important as this funding is, it’s just the beginning,” said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona), a leading voice in Congress pushing for more attention to disadvantaged communities.
“We need the scale of funding to address 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.
In addition to the $100 million for environmental justice efforts, the spending measure for fiscal year 2022 offered a more modest increase of $13 million for environmental monitoring and enforcement, for a total of $539 million. EPA Superfund cleanups received $1.23 billion in total fiscal 2022 spending under the bill, a slight increase of $27 million from fiscal year levels 2021.
Brownfields cleanup and redevelopment received a $1 million boost, for a total of $92 million. While those increases are small, Superfund and other trash cleanups have received billions of dollars in new money through the bipartisan infrastructure program, in part to help long-neglected communities near the sites.
This law earmarked $3.5 billion for Superfund cleanups over five years.
The House approved the omnibus measure (
Effort of all organizations
Advocates say underserved communities will need more than EPA program funding. The effort will take the whole-of-government approach that Biden promised when he took office.
“We’ve been battling the legacy pollution problems of communities that were built on Superfund sites and landfills for 30 years, trying to find a way out,” said Beverly White, White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council member and executive director. of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice.
More resources are needed to convert cleaned waste sites into job-creating efforts such as solar energy projects that can benefit communities, White said. “They need the help of multiple agencies to address this issue, and the EPA is in many ways just a gateway to the whole-of-government approach,” she said.
But, White added, she doesn’t yet see a process to expand that effort beyond the EPA.
EPA’s environmental justice efforts, particularly its Office of Environmental Justice — which coordinates efforts to address inequities across all EPA regional offices — are seeing significant gains in spending measurement, said Mustafa Santiago Ali, former senior adviser for the EPA’s environmental justice efforts.
“It certainly advances environmental justice,” and Superfund and other trash site cleanups now have “a much stronger foundation than we’ve had for several years,” said Ali, now vice president of the National Wildlife Federation for environmental justice, climate, and community revitalization.
Ali and other advocates said while increased funding is always welcome, this funding comes as EPA leadership promises more aggressive enforcement to better protect communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, including more surprise inspections of polluting sites.
“Even when some of those increases are modest, it can be just as important how the agency is using those resources to actually benefit those communities,” he said.
Looking forward to next year
Many advocates are already looking ahead to next year to see if recent gains in federal spending will hold up, according to Dana Johnson, senior director of strategy and federal policy for WE ACT for Environmental Justice.
“As we look to fiscal year 2023, we’ll want to see spending that’s really focused on environmental justice” beyond the EPA, she said.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced in January that the agency would strengthen inspections of sites in and around disadvantaged communities, as well as more air monitoring efforts, including the use of the agency’s ASPECT single-engine turboprop aircraft, and would hire additional air pollution inspectors.
Regan, who launched a tour of long-ignored communities in the fall, said too many communities have been suffering “far too long” – some communities have been waiting for results for decades.