The EPA is wrestling with how to allocate $50 million in “use-it-or-lose-it” grants over the next 15 months to help marginalized communities who are bearing the brunt of pollution, officials said Agency an advisory panel during a two-day meeting that ended Thursday.
The $50 million is a significant boost to the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice grants, which have barely surpassed $1 million in years past, officials said.
But the cash injection comes with some stipulations: EPA must now expand its grant program and then allocate all of the new money before the next fiscal year ends on September 30, 2023, a deadline set by congressional appropriators.
The funding shows the agency is paying more than lip service to environmental justice concerns, which have not always been a priority for EPA since it established its Environmental Justice Office 30 years ago, EPA Administrator Michael Regan told members of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council Thursday. The panel, composed of attorneys, academics, and state and tribal representatives, advises the EPA on environmental justice issues.
National environmental progress hasn’t always benefited “all people and certainly not all of our communities,” Regan said. “The journey hasn’t always been a straight line,” he said. “We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”
The EPA’s Bureau of Environmental Justice has been funded at about $15 million a year for years, Matthew Tejada, the bureau’s director, said Wednesday. In recent years, the bureau has been able to offer only $1.2 million to $1.5 million in grants, which is essentially after paying the bureau’s salaries, rent, costs of operating the NEJAC panel, and ongoing work on the EPA’s environmental justice review tool remained, he said.
“We literally scraped the bottom of the barrel,” Tejada said. Grants were typically funded “after we’ve paid the bills we have to pay.”
The grants, some directed to help build expertise in communities facing disproportionate levels of air, water and chemical pollution, come amid efforts by the Biden administration to get all agencies to address environmental injustices to tackle Regan unveiled plans in January to increase EPA inspections of sites in and around disadvantaged communities with surprise inspections, more air surveillance and hiring additional air pollution inspectors.
turn of fortune
EPA’s environmental justice efforts have led to landmark spending increases under President Joe Biden’s administration. The 2021 Covid-19 relief package earmarked $100 million for the EPA’s environmental justice and community air surveillance efforts, and a fiscal 2022 spending bill signed by Biden in March granted the EPA an additional $100 million for environmental justice.
To prepare for the increased grant funding, the agency’s Office of Environmental Justice has developed a detailed strategy with multiple technical centers, or hubs, to be offered in different EPA regions, said Jacob Burney, who is leading efforts to increase the bureau’s grants and technical assistance efforts.
The plan includes expanding environmental justice expertise through the creation of technical assistance centers for thriving communities, and the agency plans to formally submit funding applications for the centers sometime this summer, Burney said.
Efforts could begin with some initial centers placed in EPA regions with significant environmental justice challenges, such as Regions 1, 2 and 4, Burney said, spanning New England, New York and New Jersey, and the southern states. The exact locations of these first hubs will depend on the applications received, as well as the location and expertise of the applicants, he said.
EPA’s plan is to “start with an initial group of these centers and expand and strengthen them over time,” he said.
EPA also intends to coordinate its efforts with the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development, which also want to provide more technical assistance to promote environmental justice using funds awarded under the 2021 infrastructure package, he said.
The Biden administration is also targeting significant funding for environmental justice next year as part of the president’s fiscal year 2023 budget proposal unveiled in March.
The budget earmarks $1.45 billion for dozens of EPA programs to clean up pollution and help overburdened communities, but also calls for an increase in the Department of Energy’s environmental justice efforts and $1.4 million for one new Environmental Justice Office of the Department of Justice.