Are EPA programs creating more barriers for polluted communities?

Seattle has long been considered one of the most sustainable cities in the country. But the city’s green reputation obscures a deep legacy of environmental racism. Just a few miles south of Seattle’s iconic downtown and waterfront lies the Duwamish Valley, a polluted stretch of land that is home to many low-income people of color. And an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grant program intended to help appears to have inadvertently become part of the problem.

The Duwamish Valley feels a long way from the leafy, green Emerald City. Here, residents have access to an average of only 40 square feet of green space each, versus an average of 387 square feet within Seattle City limits. The Duwamish Valley is choked with pollution from a disproportionate number of polluting industries and major highways. It also hosts the Lower Duwamish Waterway Superfund site — one of the most toxic hazardous waste sites in the nation.

These factors result in tangible and serious impacts. Life expectancy in one Duwamish Valley neighborhood, South Park, is 13 years less than in whiter and more affluent areas of Seattle. After decades of disinvestment, the Duwamish Valley community faces significant health, public safety and economic disparities that require community advocacy and systemic investment to repair.

Over 20 years ago, the Duwamish River Community Coalition (DRCC) was founded by community activists seeking to address these problems. For more than a decade, our work has been supported in part by a Technical Assistance Grant (TAG) from the EPA. The purpose of the TAG is to “help communities participate in Superfund cleanup decision-making” by providing community groups the funds to contract a technical adviser to “interpret and explain technical reports, site conditions, and EPA’s proposed cleanup proposals and decisions.”

Yet, what was initially a helpful resource that allowed us to better serve our community has in practice become another one of the many systemic barriers that we face when working to create a safe and healthy environment for all. Recently, we decided to continue our advocacy work without the TAG.

The timing may seem surprising. We are choosing to forego EPA support just as internal restructuring and an influx of funding has allowed the agency to consider the ways that environmental justice and health equity are inextricably linked to their work. Yet, even as the EPA works to address environmental justice, the TAG is structured and operates in ways that are inherently unjust in my experience — especially to small, grassroots community organizations.

Maintaining the TAG has imposed outsized administrative burdens on DRCC. Significant portions of our time and resources have been spent on preparing, processing, filing and refiling invoices, work plans and other documents as we attempt to navigate confusing and inconsistent TAG procedures in a timely manner to get reimbursed for the services that we are committed to providing to our communities.

As the years have gone by, EPA has significantly narrowed our allowable scope. This means that the work we can bill to the grant has become increasingly limited. While these work plans are agreed upon by both parties, there is an undeniable power imbalance between a federal government agency that controls the funding, and small nonprofits that depend on the agency.

Our last work plan with the EPA was the most limiting plan yet. For example, when using TAG funds, we would have been required to consult with EPA before conducting outreach to people who fish in the Duwamish River. If we wanted to print a flyer warning of toxins in fish, or hold a meeting on how to fish safely, we would first need to seek approval from the EPA. This inhibited our ability to reach a highly vulnerable population, and to do large-scale, systemic work within our community.

As the EPA strives to center environmental justice in its work and organizational hierarchies, we hope the agency will reflect on the ways in which many of its systems are still deeply flawed. While new investments in environmental justice will no doubt catalyze long-awaited changes, no amount of money can remedy the consequences of environmental racism if the systems that bolster these inequities remain firmly in place.

The EPA should remove systemic barriers like the burdensome TAG requirements that limit true partnerships with community-based organizations. Our communities have valuable insight that must be heard and incorporated in environmental solutions. The National Environmental Justice Advisory Council recognizes this, stating that “bringing local experience and knowledge to the table improves the quality of cleanup decisions and builds community support.”

In contrast, the structure of the TAG program prevents meaningful participation and progress. There is no doubt that other environmental justice groups around the country are also feeling the burden of these institutional obstacles, and we are confident that by increasing accessibility, the EPA will create spaces for richer and more diverse perspectives to be heard.

Accountability and equitable funding practices are not mutually exclusive. The EPA should be able to track federal funds to ensure that money is being spent for the correct purpose. But there are ways to hold organizations accountable for the grant money they receive without overburdening them and limiting decision-making to groups that are large enough to handle current reporting requirements. For example, the EPA could support frontline-serving intermediaries to handle grant compliance. The EPA can and should work with community groups to develop processes that center the organization’s capacity and experience working with impacted communities.

Ultimately, the EPA says that it embraces “the need for better outcomes in communities where there are unique burdens and vulnerabilities for populations living in and around Superfund sites.” I hope that EPA will recognize this opportunity to live up to that promise.

Jamie Hearn, J.D., is Superfund Program manager at Duwamish River Community Coalition as the Superfund Program Manager. Her work focuses on federal and state-level toxic clean-ups. She previously worked as an environmental and outdoor educator and spent her time in law school working for the Tulalip Tribal Court, Seattle University Domestic Violence Legal Clinic, American Indian Law Journal, Communities for a Better Environment, and The Nature Conservancy.

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