Funding for the EPA’s environmental justice program would nearly double under the House-passed spending bill, heartening community leaders who say the funding is badly needed.
The House on Friday passed a minibus (H.R. 7608) that includes $17 million overall for environmental justice programs at the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s a significant boost from the $9.55 million provided in the fiscal 2020 enacted budget for environmental justice activities.
The underlying Interior-Environment bill contained $15 million for EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice to enact the EJ 2020 Action Agenda. A Democratic amendment to the minibus added another another $2 million for environmental justice programs at EPA for a total of $17 million.
The Senate hasn’t yet marked up any of its fiscal 2021 spending bills. Sen. Tom Udall (N.M.), top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds the EPA, expressed hope that lawmakers “will continue making progress” on boosting environmental justice funding.
“I will continue to fight for these investments—and investments across the EPA to address environmental disparities—in the Senate,” Udall said.
But a spokeswoman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who chairs the subcommittee, was noncommittal about the EJ funding level’s prospects.
“Senator Murkowski appreciates the work of the House on their bill and their priorities, but will continue working closely with her Senate colleagues on the FY21 Senate Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee bill. Details on what may or may not be in the bill will be released once there is a markup,” spokeswoman Karina Borger said.
The White House has threatened to veto H.R. 7608 if it reaches President Donald Trump in its current form, but didn’t mention the EJ funding.
The EPA’s Office of Inspector General recently said the agency has “taken several actions over the past couple of years that threaten to reverse course on its prior environmental justice efforts.”
The agency’s budget for environmental justice activities has dropped sharply since 2017, the OIG said. In fiscal years 2017 and 2018, the Trump administration proposed zeroing out the program altogether, according to the OIG.
The House’s money is meant to help the EPA perform more compliance reviews and enforcement in at least 100 of the nation’s most overburdened communities, as well as to conduct cumulative risk assessments, according to a House news release.
Lawmakers also want the EPA to develop a definition for disproportionately exposed communities, consider racial inequities and the large disparities in coronavirus deaths seen in communities of color, and consider increasing the size and number of environmental justice grants it issues.
“As communities plagued by environmental injustice struggle through our nation’s ongoing and intersecting racial justice, public health and climate crises, Congress can’t afford to sit on the sidelines,” said Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), who offered the amendment along with Reps. Alma Adams (N.C.), House Natural Resources Chairman Raul Grijalva (Ariz.) and Diana DeGette (Colo.).
McEachin said the measure would “expand critical resources needed to address the pressing environmental and public health issues affecting underserved communities.”
A Democratic spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee told Bloomberg Law in early July that, while the caucus does encourage more grants, “the bulk of the funding increase is intended to stay within the agency to help EPA carry out its EJ Action Agenda 2020.”
EJ Leaders Speak Out
Environmental justice leaders hailed the proposed funding, and also laid out their own ideas about how the money could best be used.
One of the best uses for the new funding would be tougher EPA enforcement in low-income communities of color, Ana Baptista, board vice-chair at the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance, said.
That need is amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic, which could impose more emissions on overburdened communities from industries “who believe no one is watching,” said Baptista, who’s also a professor of environmental policy and sustainability at the New School.
The money could be used to prioritize rulemakings that mitigate the pollution burden in environmental justice communities, especially from the transportation sector, power plants, and industrial facilitie, Baptista added.
“EJ communities need more targeted investments and protections, not less, right now,” she said.
Christine Appah, a senior staff attorney at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, said the money would be well spent on bolstering the EPA’s Conflict Prevention and Resolution Center, which supports alternative dispute resolution to reach common ground between parties.
Directing the funds toward alternative dispute resolution would “help people get a faster means to realizing answers when a community is faced with an environmental threat,” Appah said.
Other environmental justice leaders agreed with the House’s strategy to keep the funding inside the EPA.
Eddie Bautista, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, said that, because the approved House funding is a relatively small amount that wouldn’t make much of an impact in nationally-distributed grants, “we may get more bang for the limited buck” by investing more in the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice.
Similarly, Peggy Shepard, co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, said the funds should be used to help bulk up the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice and turn it into a more robust, effective department.
One key step would be to hire a director at the department “who has the trust of environmental justice organizations,” Shepard said.
“Committing to advancing the recommendations of its own National Environmental Justice Advisory Council would be another step. As would issuing an annual report to Congress, explaining how these funds are spent,” she said.
But $17 million still “falls short of the need,” Shepard said. In her view, the office needs at least $20 million to fulfill its mission.
An EPA spokeswoman said the agency “will work with the funds Congress appropriates to continue our environmental justice work.”
The agency “is strengthening environmental and public health protections for vulnerable, low-income, minority, tribal and indigenous communities—making measurable progress in improving outcomes for these Americans,” the spokeswoman said.
To illustrate, she pointed to “tools, technical assistance, grants, and meaningful engagement to economically distressed communities.” The agency’s environmental justice program currently has 34.9 full time equivalents, and the EPA ensures that at least one full-time, dedicated environmental justice coordinator is on duty in each of its 10 regions, the spokeswoman said.
—With assistance from Dean Scott.