Environmental justice advocates say the year ahead will be crucial in translating environmental justice promises, strategies, and billions of dollars of funding into results for neglected communities.
With the Biden administration at the halfway point of a four-year term, environmental equity has been elevated to more of a priority issue for the EPA and other federal agencies.
The environmental justice movement scored big wins from Congress over the last two years, including billions of dollars in funding in last fall’s climate legislation, the bipartisan 2021 infrastructure bill, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s annual budget.
But with funding now allocated and Republicans controlling the House, advocates will shift focus to getting results from what President Joe Biden promised on environmental equity. That includes a strengthened 1994 environmental justice executive order unchanged since the Clinton administration, a scorecard for federal agencies showing what progress they’ve made in addressing environmental justice, and distributing more than $3 billion in grant funding.
“We have a critical opportunity this year to double down on the administration’s commitment to environmental justice, deliver unprecedented benefits to communities across the country through President Biden’s Justice40 initiative, and institutionalize environmental justice” across agencies, said Jalonne White-Newsome, the Council on Environmental Quality’s senior director for environmental justice.
The Justice40 effort aims to steer 40% of the benefits of funding for clean energy, climate change, affordable housing, and other objectives to poorer and marginalized populations disproportionately affected by pollution.
Many advocates expect the administration to put significant focus in 2023 on increased engagement with disadvantaged communities that want to see tangible progress but also want local community groups and workers to benefit.
Some communities, particularly low-income and communities of color, “have faced barrier after barrier trying to access the federal funds they need and deserve,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan told reporters Jan. 10. Regan, joined by environmental equity advocates, announced the availability of the first $100 million in environmental justice grants under the climate law, including $30 million for community-based organizations.
White-Newsome said advocates should expect the administration to be “laser focused” on ensuring record levels of funding actually “reach communities across the country” long ignored by policy makers and overburdened by pollution.
Time for Results
The administration also needs to provide advocates “with a seat at the table in pursuit of solutions to environmental and climate challenges,” said Catherine Flowers, founder of the Alabama-based Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice.
“Everything else flows from that support,” she said.
That means agencies will need to translate progress on outreach and listening sessions of the last two years into more enforcement against big polluters, Flowers said.
Advocates also want stronger regulations that take into account what are often cumulative impacts from multiple air, chemical, and other pollutants in such communities.
“There’s the sense that these things are being worked on but we need to see the results from it,” said Maria Lopez-Nunez, deputy organizing and advocacy director for the New Jersey-based advocacy group Ironbound Community Corp. “And we need to see more work on a faster pace,” including strengthened environmental regulations, some of which haven’t been updated in more than a decade, she said.
“This issue even now gets pigeonholed as being just about community input” rather than a full-fledged reversal of the environmental harms being inflicted on communities, said Lopez-Nunez, who also advises the administration as a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, or WHEJAC.
The White House can capitalize on its work over the past two years by expanding environmental justice staff and increasing efforts by the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council, which coordinates actions by more than a dozen big agencies from the Defense Department to the EPA, White-Newsome said.
Biden’s executive order revisions aim to put some teeth in the 1994 version from then-President Bill Clinton, which directed agencies to address disproportionate environmental and health impacts on disadvantaged populations. And the equity scorecard effort, overseen by the CEQ and White House Office of Management and Budget, is to provide a publicly available online grade of each agency’s efforts.
Both the executive order and scorecard are likely to be released in the coming months.
EPA, which spent much of the first two years of the administration laying the groundwork integrating environmental equity actions across the agency, also launched a national environmental justice office in the fall. A big focus for the coming year will mean ramping up hiring for that office, Matthew Tejada, EPA deputy assistant administrator for environmental justice, said in an interview.
The agency’s priorities to a great extent “have already been chosen,” from more attention to state permitting of projects impacting such communities to a greater focus on the cumulative environmental impacts they bear. The EPA also is on the verge of an historical hiring effort for environmental justice positions, with the agency ramping up what was to be about 200 positions focused on the issue to 400 over the next four years, funded by the 2022 climate bill, Tejada said.
Look for the agency to more fully implement its pledge to “really fully utilize” its legal authority to pursue environmental justice, including its Civil Rights Act authority to pursue discrimination in programs and efforts awarded federal funding, said EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator for Civil Rights Lilian Dorka.
“This really is where the rubber meets the road in terms of communities coming to EPA and saying, `Enough is enough’” in their battle against discrimination, she said.
The sentiment of action and urgency is echoed by environmental justice organizations such as the Ironbound group.
A major focus for that group, municipal incinerators typically located in low-income and disadvantaged areas, remains a sore spot given EPA hasn’t updated standards in 15 years. WHEJAC pressed the administration on the issue in an August letter that noted Biden’s promise that “EJ would be a centerpiece of EPA activities.”
The administration needs to move forward on the issue “as if lives were at stake,” the group wrote, “because they are.”