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Targeting federal spending to help EPA promote environmental justice

by David Coursen

Given all that we know about racial injustice and its devastating effects on the health of people and the planet, it is shocking how few resources the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has devoted to promoting environmental justice.

In 2019, the EPA budget was 1,500 times the size of its environmental justice budget, just one staff position in 650 was devoted to this issue and a mere $1 of every $2,000 in the EPA’s grants budget was earmarked for environmental justice. The Biden administration is moving aggressively to remedy this.

A first step in tackling environmental justice was the president’s January executive order on climate, which provided no new resources but adopted a policy “to secure environmental justice” for disadvantaged communities that have been “historically marginalized and overburdened by pollution.” And now the administration’s American Jobs Plan proposes to use EPA’s water infrastructure, Superfund and brownfields programs to achieve that goal.

A centerpiece of the plan is a down payment on the nearly half a trillion dollars needed over the next two decades to ensure that all communities have clean and safe water. It calls for spending $111 billion on EPA water infrastructure, including facilities to store, treat and distribute safe water. A massive investment in water infrastructure over the last half century has provided only limited help to many low-income, Indigenous and communities of color. Two million people, including an alarming 6 percent of Indigenous households, still lack access to running water and the ability to flush toilets, which most of us take for granted.

Six to 10 million homes, many of them in our poorest cities, receive drinking water through lead pipes and service lines. Lead can disrupt development and learning, and it can also result in kidney and brain damage. The plan devotes $45 billion to eliminating the toxic metal from water delivery systems and it decreases lead exposure in schools and child care facilities.

The plan also proposes $66 billion to improve aging water systems in thousands of communities. It provides funds to monitor and remedy toxic “forever chemicals” in drinking water and to invest in rural small water systems.

If implemented, these proposals will go a long way toward advancing environmental justice in the U.S. But they must be paired with an EPA environmental justice program that has the staff and resources to engage meaningfully and work collaboratively with residents of thousands of communities. The EPA’s environmental justice budget has doubled during the last three years but still receives less than $12 million. The 1,400 communities served by environmental justice grants and the 1,800 sites listed for cleanup under the Superfund program are a small part of the universe of disadvantaged communities that an effective program could serve.

To work successfully with such communities, the EPA will need to expand its environmental justice capacity dramatically. Most obviously, this will mean increased staffing for environmental justice in EPA’s headquarters and 10 regional offices and within other agency program offices to make environmental justice an integral part of EPA’s mission and activities, not an add-on.

The EPA will also need a more robust environmental justice grants program. The existing program has awarded roughly $1 million per year since 1994. This year it will provide up to $6 million for up to seven projects in each EPA region. EPA has been urged to pursue more ambitious projects, with larger and more numerous grants.

The EPA receives other funding that can enhance protection for disadvantaged communities. Most obviously, grants to Indian tribes support environmental management and also reduce environmental burdens on Indigenous communities. Similarly, diesel emission-reduction grants address deadly concentrations of transportation pollution, which have a tremendous and disproportionate impact on disadvantaged communities.

The agency will also need additional funding to meet requirements under the climate executive order. Specifically, the directive to create a community notification program to monitor and provide real-time data to the public on current pollution in places with significant exposure will require a major upgrade of the existing monitoring system. That system is underfunded, with too few monitors to cover the nation’s 3.8 million square miles, much less provide detailed information to heavily exposed frontline or fence-line communities. In addition, existing monitors may not be well-placed to detect pollution hot spots, or may not meet federal accuracy standards, or operate all the time, or be calibrated to measure actual pollution levels or the full range of pollutants affecting an area.

Biden’s American Jobs Plan would dramatically advance environmental justice by funding infrastructure improvements that provide safe water and sanitation to disadvantaged communities and remove the poison of lead from our drinking water system. But there is more to be done. The next step is to provide EPA with additional resources to advance environmental justice in its programs, and create a system to notify disadvantaged communities about the burdens they face.

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.

This article was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation. It was originally published April 5, 2021 on The Hill.



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Urban Resilience Project

Urban Resilience Project


A changing climate means a changing society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project (URP) is committed to a greener, fairer future.