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Rebuilding EPA through its climate programs

The Environmental Protection Agency headquarters is seen in Washington, D.C., on June 3
Greg Nash

After surviving a barrage of assaults on its mission and the science that supports it, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now faces the triple challenges of rebuilding its capacity to protect the nation’s air, land and water; leading the urgent response to climate change that the science demands, and delivering environmental justice to disadvantaged communities. President Biden’s EPA budget request for fiscal 2022 takes a huge step toward meeting those challenges.  

The administration has requested a $2 billion increase in EPA’s budget, with 90 percent of the proposed increase — $1.8 billion — going to climate work, which EPA astutely defines expansively. The budget also directs half of the benefits of new climate spending to flow to disadvantaged low-income and indigenous communities, as well as communities of color, all of which have long bore the heaviest burdens from environmental pollution.  

The most obvious type of climate funding is in support for reducing greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. Thus, EPA requests $150 million in new funding for EPA clean air and climate programs, and another $100 million for state and tribal grants for managing air quality that can help states use air monitoring, permitting and pollution reduction efforts to “accelerate immediate on-the-ground efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.” A $60 million increase for diesel emission reduction grants can be used to relieve crippling pollution burdens on disadvantaged communities near transport corridors, ports and industrial facilities. Finally, the budget requests a $100 million increase to EPA science funding including $60 million for climate research, more than doubling support for that important work. 

The EPA budget will also improve air quality monitoring with $100 million to create a community notification system that collects real-time air emissions data from the fence line and frontline communities that bear the heaviest burdens from pollution exposure. Besides providing information that will help vulnerable communities better protect themselves, the system will also generate timely and reliable information to use in targeting enforcement resources where pollution is worst. 

The EPA will use $930 million of the new funding to address environmental justice and ensure that EPA considers it in every aspect of its work. More specifically, the budget requests $287 million and 170 staff positions to create new environmental justice programs, including $140 million for several new types of environmental justice implementation grants. It also adds $56 million in enforcement support including $30 million to incorporate environmental justice in monitoring and compliance activities and $26 million to implement a comprehensive civil enforcement plan that addresses environmental justice, climate and other priority concerns. 

The EPA recognizes that tackling climate change requires going beyond reducing greenhouse gas emissions by taking measures to redress the legacy of pollution and underinvestment that has historically burdened our nation’s disadvantaged communities. The issue is one of climate as well as equity. Cleaned up toxic waste sites, adequate infrastructure for treating and managing wastewater and safe and affordable drinking water are essential to community resilience in the face of rising sea levels, catastrophic storms and flooding, severe droughts, heat waves and wildfires driven by a changing climate. We’ve already witnessed cataclysmic storms and uncontrollable fires overwhelming inadequate water systems, devastating entire communities and leaving them without safe water.  

Thus, the EPA budget adds $463 million to funding for state revolving loan programs for wastewater and drinking water infrastructure. It also includes $110 million in added funding for other infrastructure programs that support safe water for small and disadvantaged communities, infrastructure sustainability, reduced lead in drinking water, testing for lead in school drinking water and sewer overflow control. 

Extreme climate events can also disturb and circulate dangerous pollution from the 1,370 hazardous waste sites on the EPA Superfund national priorities clean-up list. Human exposure to contamination is either uncontrolled or uncertain at 250 sites, and at least 800 sites are vulnerable to extreme flooding. The budget responds by adding $300 million to clean-up funding to start or accelerate clean-ups at 35 priority sites awaiting adequate funding. The budget also increases support for the brownfields hazardous waste site redevelopment program by $40 million. 

In tandem with its support for climate and equity, the budget also increases resources to support EPA’s core environmental management capacity. The administration is requesting $110 million for 1,000 new full-time employees that will help rebuild EPA’s overall capacity to protect our air, land and water. It also requests additional resources totaling $125 million for a range of cross-agency purposes: legal, science, regulatory and economic review; buildings and facilities; operation and administration of agency environmental management and Superfund programs; and information and outreach. 

The budget also requests $120 million for core environmental management functions including $45 million for EPA’s water and toxic substance programs and another $75 million to support state core activities, including implementing  federal environmental programs and restoring and protecting important regional water bodies like the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay.

The new resources in the EPA budget will be critical to rebuilding our depleted national system of environmental protection. While most of the new funding goes to the highest priorities, climate protection and environmental justice, all of it will help rebuild and restore the ability of EPA and its state, tribal and local partners to carry out their collective mission of protecting public health  and the environment. EPA needs to be fully funded.

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.

Tags Biden climate policy climate Climate change Environmental justice EPA epa funding Joe Biden Superfund sites

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