The Biden administration signaled its commitment to environmental justice in its Jan. 27 executive order on Tackling the Climate Crisis. Now the administration has taken two big steps toward funding that commitment.
First, its American Jobs Plan targets $111 billion to meet the water infrastructure needs of indigenous people, low-income communities and communities of color. Then, last week’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) budget outline announced a $936 million environmental justice initiative. That would represent a remarkable turnaround for an agency that currently spends just $11.8 million on environmental justice — little more than a rounding error in an agency budget of more than $9 billion.
The next step is for Congress to fully fund these game-changing proposals.
The executive order on climate builds on executive order 12898, President Clinton’s foundational 1994 environmental justice order, which highlighted the need for federal agencies to avoid imposing disproportionate environmental burdens on disadvantaged communities. The new order broadens the focus to include distribution of benefits and directs that 40 percent of the benefits of certain federal spending flow to disadvantaged communities.
The order also mandates a comprehensive federal environmental justice enforcement strategy to address disproportionate burdens on underserved communities and provide them with better environmental information. The budget outline requests $130 million to take these two vital enforcement steps.
Effective enforcement is critical because violations of environmental requirements are so pervasive at all regulated facilities, including the disproportionate share located near disadvantaged communities. One survey found serious violations at a quarter of most types of facilities, with even higher rates — up to 80 percent or more — for large pollution sources with the biggest health effects.
Compounding the problem, a relative handful of facilities do most of the damage. Just 100 facilities — half of one percent of the total — were responsible for an astonishing one-third of America’s toxic air pollution in 2014. Too often these “super polluters” operate below the radar, creating sacrifice zones where marginalized indigenous, low-income and communities of color with little power to resist suffer enormous health and environmental burdens.
The outline requests $30 million to get EPA started with strengthening enforcement for overburdened communities.
The climate order also mandates creation of a robust community pollution notification system to monitor and provide real-time data on current environmental pollution to frontline and fenceline communities — where the burdens are heaviest. The budget outline proposes $100 million to begin creating and operating such a system. This significant funding is necessary to upgrade the existing monitoring system, which has a long track record of missing major pollution events and overlooking pollution hot spots.
The climate order calls for disadvantaged communities to receive 40 percent of the benefits from federal spending to address “legacy pollution” by cleaning up Superfund hazardous waste sites and redeveloping brownfield sites that have been cleaned up. The jobs plan provides $5 billion for such cleanup and redevelopment actions, which the proposed budget would supplement with more brownfields funding and $900 million for Superfund cleanups. The benefits from such cleanup and redevelopment projects flow to nearby communities by relieving them from the burdens of hazardous waste exposure or urban blight.
The 40 percent target also applies to clean water infrastructure projects. While the EPA’s drinking water and wastewater infrastructure programs have greatly improved our nation’s water systems, their benefits have bypassed too many disadvantaged communities. This year’s budget plan boosts funding for EPA’s existing water infrastructure programs by $620 million, and includes suggestions to use it to improve community water systems, repair septic systems and make broader improvements.
But the $111 billion water infrastructure proposal in the jobs plan would make a far bigger investment in environmental justice. It would direct $45 billion to eliminating lead from the drinking water delivery and service lines and to reducing lead exposure for 400,000 schools and child care facilities. Those aging pipes bring toxic lead into as many as ten million homes, largely in our poorest cities. The plan also provides $56 billion to upgrade and modernize aging drinking water, wastewater and stormwater systems and another $10 billion to address toxic forever chemicals in drinking water and invest in rural water systems.
The budget outline also requests $1.8 billion to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and deliver environmental justice, including $130 million for greenhouse gas reduction grants and increased EPA climate change research. The outline also will increase the $90 million diesel emission reduction grant program, which targets deadly transport pollution that is immensely harmful to many poor urban communities. The outline’s final piece is money to transform the EPA’s civil rights program into an effective tool for advancing environmental justice.
The interlocking pieces of the climate order, the jobs plan and the 2022 EPA budget outline are essential elements of the administration’s environmental justice strategy. The administration needs to stand strongly behind them and Congress needs to fully fund them to advance our nation toward environmental justice.
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.