A just EPA budget for environmental justice

A just EPA budget for environmental justice
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Given all we know about the ubiquity of racial injustice and its devastating and disproportionate effects on the health of people who live in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, it is shocking how few resources EPA devotes to environmental justice (EJ). 

In 2019, the last year for which complete numbers are available, EPA’s budget of $8.8 billion was 1,500 times the size of its environmental justice budget; its $4.2 billion budget for EPA grants to states and tribes was 2,000 times what the agency provided to communities to address the disproportionate impacts of pollution; and its staff of 14,000 was 650 times as large as its Office of  Environmental Justice. By 2019, the EPA EJ program had half the staff and less than half the budget (in constant dollars) than the Clinton administration proposed 20 years earlier.

Today, EPA’s environmental justice program is barely a shell of what the agency needs to play a leadership role — or any meaningful role — in ensuring fair environmental treatment for our nation’s communities of color and lower income communities. Frontline communities cope daily with pollution from power plants and factories and suffer the worst burdens of increased floods, fires and heat waves caused by climate change.

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It will take a major government commitment and a just budget to even begin to tackle these injustices. EPA needs to expand the size and focus of both its environmental justice program and its environmental justice grants. And Congress must expand the agency’s massive water infrastructure program so that underserved and overburdened communities receive a just share of funds needed to provide safe drinking water and treat their wastewater.

This year’s House EPA appropriation, if adopted by the Senate, would represent a tiny step up, raising EJ spending to slightly above the 1999 request. The House Appropriation Committee report accompanying the bill contains specific suggestions for best using the money. One of them calls for expanding environmental enforcement near a hundred targeted communities. This is a prudent response to evidence that these communities are disproportionately exposed to the very worst sources of pollution of the air and water and contamination of the land.

Less specifically, the report calls for more “ambitious” environmental justice projects and an expanded grants program. There is certainly room for growth: the tiny EPA environmental justice grant program has awarded communities $28 million — roughly $1 million per year — since 1994, with projects generally limited to $30,000 per year, with a handful of “larger” grants of twice that amount, and an annual ceiling of $2.1 million. Moreover, these grants are awarded under research and demonstration authorities that limit their uses to testing or demonstrating new or unproven approaches to environmental justice and can’t be used for activities with demonstrated effectiveness.

Even so, EPA has awarded grants to more than 1,400 communities, suggesting that many communities could benefit from an expanded environmental justice grants program. The heart of an effective EJ program is community engagement, and to build and maintain such a program will require enough staff to engage meaningfully and work collaboratively with hundreds or thousands of communities. Achieving that will require far more than the agency can serve with its 2019 budget of $5.2 million and its staff of 22 full-time employees, with fewer than half of them working in EPA’s 10 regional offices. It will take a sustained commitment to expanding resources over several years at a rate that the agency can absorb and utilize effectively, not a modest one-year boost to a funding level just above what seemed adequate 20 years ago.  

Another approach to the needs of low-income communities and communities of color would be to provide them a fair share of the bounty that the EPA has devoted to constructing wastewater and drinking water infrastructure, more than $120 billion over the last half century, making it the largest peace-time public works project in U.S. history. 

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In a pattern that is all too familiar by now, communities of color, low-income communities and indigenous people have been short-changed and left with a large unmet need for water infrastructure. The vast majority of the 2 million Americans lacking indoor plumbing are low-income people and people of color. Twelve percent of U.S. households struggle to pay water bills; over 9 million homes, many of them in our nation’s poorest cities, receive water through lead pipes; and nearly 3,000 communities have lead poisoning levels twice as high as those in Flint, Mich., during its water crisis. 

One way to mitigate this injustice would be to set aside a share of infrastructure funding, in the form of grants, with no cost share or repayment requirements, to meet the needs of underserved and overburdened communities. A similar approach has worked well in closing gaping infrastructure gaps for Alaska Native Villages and communities in the U.S.-Mexico border region.

Environmental justice cannot mean that poor people and people of color, first in line when it comes to exposure, are little more than an afterthought when it comes to environmental and public health protections. Our nation needs to commit to fair treatment for our nation’s most vulnerable communities. EPA cannot fulfill this promise on the cheap. It’s time for a sustained commitment to a just budget and an environmental justice program that can help communities still burdened by the environmental inequities of the past create safer and healthier neighborhoods. 

David F. Coursen is a former EPA attorney and a member of the Environmental Protection Network, a nonprofit organization of EPA alumni working to protect the agency's progress toward clean air, water, land and climate protection.