The Environmental Protection Agency unveiled $50 million in new funding on Friday to help low-income and communities of color most impacted by pollution, the climate crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is the Biden administration’s first big spending blitz on environmental justice, which has formed a cornerstone of his climate policy. And it represents a dramatic increase in funding on an issue largely ignored by the Trump administration.
“This is the most aggressive approach to tackling environmental injustice and equity issues,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan told BuzzFeed News ahead of Friday’s announcement. “And from the White House to the EPA, we are turning the words into action and we are really excited to get these resources into the hands of communities.”
Congress allocated $100 million to the EPA to go towards environmental justice initiatives as part of the latest COVID aid package, the American Rescue Plan signed into law in March. Friday’s funding announcement identified how the first half of that money will be spent, and the agency plans to share details on the next $50 million later this summer.
The largest chunk of the money — $16.6 million — will go to environmental justice grants to help cities, states, tribes, and territories to fund education on pollution’s impacts on the environment and public health, as well as training community members to get jobs in the environmental sector.
“What we’ve all seen firsthand is that COVID-19 has magnified the daily injustices facing communities of color, low income communities, the same communities that will suffer disproportionately from climate change, who face higher rates of heart and lung disease,” Regan said. Some studies have suggested that people living in places across the country with dirty air are more likely to die from COVID-19 than those living with less pollution.
Coming in as the first Black man to serve as EPA administrator, Regan vowed to make environmental justice a priority, just as he had in his previous role as the head of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.
For Mustafa Santigao Ali, the former EPA environmental justice head under the Obama administration, this funding announcement is long overdue. The Trump administration curbed pollution enforcement, watered down car and power plant pollution rules, and even suspended diversity training programs, all of which “actually deepened and widened the sacrifice zones across the country,” Ali said.
“It’s great to see for the first time there’s going to be significant resources for these various sets of programs,” he said, adding that today’s funding levels are “magnitudes larger” than what he had to work with at the agency.
Regan is announcing this new funding from a water filtration plant in Baltimore, noting that $200,000 is going to a program there called YH20 that trains people from diverse backgrounds to get jobs in water management.
Since launching in 2015, YH20 has trained nearly 100 people between the ages of 18 and 24 in local water management. Upwards of 85 of them are still working within Baltimore’s Department of Public Works, according to Yolanda Winkler, who helps run the mentoring and training program.
The money from the EPA will help the program “expand in a real and serious way,” Winkler said, including increasing how many people can participate.
“YH20 and organizations like them are the perfect organizations to receive the money, to not only relieve the pressure that has been exacerbated by COVID-19, but to relieve pressures that have been present for generations,” Regan said.
Some of the additional grant money will go to groups including the Tohono O’odham Tribal Nation in Arizona to help develop plans to address air quality problems, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to boost awareness about air pollution and disinfectants, and the Los Angeles, California housing authority to fund a pilot program boosting worker awareness about asthma.
Additionally, $7 million is going to the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act rebate program to fund electric school buses in underserved communities, $5.1 million is going to expand civil and criminal enforcement of air and water polluters, and $5 million is going to help cleanup brownfield sites.
And to help the EPA, which lost hundreds of employees during the prior four years, about $1 million of the money is going towards “administrative costs.”
“A lot of it will go to shoring up our basic infrastructure to make sure we have equity and environmental justice included” in the agency’s work, Regan said.
But he acknowledged that even more resources are needed for the EPA to truly address these issues, and hopes the president’s proposed 2022 budget goes further to help fill the gaps.