President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid relief package includes a downpayment on his ambitious climate plan, including $100 million to address harmful air quality and environmental health risks in minority and low-income communities.
The provisions begin to make good on Biden’s pledge to address environmental injustice as an integral part of his drive to put the nation on track to net zero carbon emissions by mid-century. And they constitute the U.S. government’s first response to the growing scientific evidence—at least 17 peer-reviewed studies so far—showing that areas with high levels of air pollution have higher coronavirus death rates or more severe outbreaks. Some studies were able to trace the higher mortality specifically to fossil fuel pollution.
“Covid-19 is a respiratory illness and science has repeatedly shown how Americans who have been exposed to disproportionate air pollution are at higher risk of developing severe complications,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who said he fought to include the funding in the bill. “This pandemic has shown a spotlight on unequal access to clean air in this country.”
The Environmental Protection Agency will administer the funding, with about $50 million directed to environmental justice grants and other activities that identify and address disproportionate environmental or public health harms and risks. That is more than the $40 million that EPA has spent on environmental justice grants in the 26 years it has been administering the program.
The other $50 million will be distributed to state, local and tribal agencies for improving air quality monitoring and addressing pollution. The money begins to address what state and local agencies have called a chronic shortfall in federal support for these activities. Funding for air quality monitoring has been stagnant for 15 years at about $228 million per year, according to the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. While the Clean Air Act originally envisioned that the federal government would provide 60 percent of the support for air quality monitoring, the burden currently is carried 75 percent by state and local governments, the association told Congress last year.
EPA spokesman Nick Conger said it is difficult to pinpoint where and how the funds will be spent, compared to previous expenditures. The new EPA Administrator, Michael Regan, was just confirmed by the Senate last week. Conger said the agency is currently assessing “all options for the most meaningful and impactful financial vehicles for these funds.”
“Put most simply,” he said in an email, “both the scale and the details related to how the funding can be spent are unprecedented.”
Looking at Air Quality Through a Different Lens
The support was welcomed by activists and environmentalists who have been working with minority and poor communities overburdened with air pollution. They see the funding as a potential turning point in getting the attention to issues they have been seeking for years.
“This can provide some mechanisms to really begin to look at air quality through a different lens,” said Beto Lugo-Martinez, executive director of the nonprofit CleanAirNow, in Kansas City. “When the Clean Air Act was enacted, and they were placing monitors, they were really not thinking about local communities. They were thinking about local ambient air quality. And in the work we’ve done, we know those air monitors don’t capture what is happening in these neighborhoods.”
Lugo-Martinez has been working for years with a group of largely Hispanic neighborhoods in southwest Kansas City—Argentine, Turner and Armourdale—that are home to one of the nation’s largest freight rail hubs. Nearly 2,000 railcars per day are sorted and routed in different directions from the 780-acre inland port, activity that sends enough soot into the air to line the window panes of surrounding homes.
Residents did their own testing and found high levels of fine particulate matter, PM 2.5, and black carbon, indicating they were being exposed to the harmful pollution caused by incomplete combustion of diesel fuel, Lugo-Martinez said.
The EPA, responding to residents’ pressure, began its own study in 2017, but Lugo-Martinez said the agency did not seek community input on where testing should take place. In 2019, the Trump administration announced preliminary findings showing no levels of pollution that would be a health concern.
Meanwhile, the county where the neighborhoods are located, Wyandotte, has consistently ranked near the bottom of Kansas’ 105 counties for health measures like life expectancy. And in mid-January this year, Wyandotte’s positive Covid-19 test rate spiked to 40 percent, more than three times the national average at that time.
“The same communities that are being hit hardest with Covid are the same ones that already had lung issues and that had heart disease because they are adjacent to these facilities,” said Lugo-Martinez. “It’s not a coincidence.”
Some Republican members of Congress opposed including environmental justice funding in the Covid legislation. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, (R-W.Va.), the highest ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, raised concerns about the funding at the panel’s March 3 confirmation hearing for Brenda Mallory, Biden’s choice to chair the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Mallory, director of regulatory policy at the Southern Environmental Law Center, was one of the authors of a roadmap for the new administration that recommended that the council play a role in elevating the issue of environmental justice.
“There is a great emphasis in this Administration on environmental justice and equity,” said Capito. “That is a lot of the words that are used. As a matter of fact, this Covid bill has, for some reason, some money in there for environmental justice. I don’t agree with it being exactly Covid-related but that is a whole different topic.”
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Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced an amendment that would have stripped environmental justice funding from the bill, saying it was “difficult to connect that up to Covid.” That measure never made it to a vote, and in the end Lee and the entire Republican caucus voted against the relief bill.
“This is a bill that will worsen our national debt and weaken our economy in the long run without even doing much to help small businesses and American families in the short term,” said Lee during the debate on the legislation. He said the package was “about fulfilling the political wish list of one political party over another and has very little, if anything, to do with the pandemic.”
Environmental Justice Funds Dwindled Under Trump
The Biden administration’s focus on addressing pollution as part of its pandemic policy marks a 180-degree turn from the EPA’s approach under President Donald Trump, when the agency announced in late March 2020 that it would suspend enforcement of environmental laws amid the Covid-19 crisis.
From early on, the Trump administration sought to place less emphasis on environmental justice by slashing funding—a step that Congress never agreed to. But a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that by 2019, environmental justice grants had fallen by 70 percent, compared to the level in the first two years of the Obama administration. Last year, the EPA said it spent about $4 million on environmental justice, including $2 million to state and local agencies to help “underserved communities” that were hard-hit by the pandemic.
But when studies began to emerge last year showing a link between air pollution and Covid-19 severity, Trump’s EPA Administrator, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, called the work “interesting,” but consistently dismissed it as too preliminary for agency decision-making.
“I sat down with our career scientists from our research office, and I specifically asked the question, how long is it before we’re going to be able to make real decisions based upon the pandemic and the impact on air and they told me privately several years,” Wheeler said in December, rejecting calls for stricter air quality standards for PM 2.5 and ozone.
But in the Biden administration’s view, there is enough evidence to act now—given what is already known about the outsized burden for minority communities on both pollution and Covid.
“Across the country, many low-income communities and communities of color face disproportionate exposure to air, land, and water pollution,” said Conger. “Since these communities are battling two enemies at once—pollution and the virus—it makes sense that Congress gave EPA funding to focus on reducing these communities’ pollution burden.”
Death rates for Covid-19 are two times higher for Black and Hispanic people compared to whites in the United States, and rates of hospitalization are three times higher, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Mustafa Ali, vice president of environmental justice, climate and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation, said the funding in the Covid bill is “critically important” for neighborhoods that are bearing multiple health and economic burdens.
“It helps to build capacity and begin to dismantle the sacrifice zones that are across our country,” said Ali, who spent 24 years working on environmental justice issues at EPA, before leaving at the start of the Trump administration.
First Steps in a Larger Plan
Another major climate provision in the Covid relief package—one that is also of great importance to minority communities—is an historic infusion of federal money to support the nation’s struggling mass transit system. On top of the $20 billion in public transit aid included in last spring’s Covid package, the new law adds $30.5 billion to help ailing public mass transit systems. That is more than three times the annual federal funding of $10 billion over the past decade.
While safe, accessible and reliable mass transit is critical to reducing carbon emissions, 65 percent of U.S. public transit agencies were forced to cut service because of the sharp drop in ridership with the pandemic.
Ali noted that reductions in mass transit were yet another disproportionate burden borne by poor and minority urban communities, where residents relied on bus and rail to commute to essential jobs or to get to the doctor. He said he sees it as part of a “domino effect” of multiple risks facing such communities.
By addressing access to transportation, health care, economic insecurity and the threats in their environments, Ali said, “this bill actually begins to lift those dominos back up in a positive direction.”
Of course, the Covid-19 bill only represents a small portion of the Biden administration’s planned initiatives on climate or on addressing environmental injustice. Administration officials have made clear they are turning next to a major infrastructure bill, including spending on electric grid modernization, an electric vehicle charging station network and climate resilience. Biden signed an executive order on his first day in office directing his administration to ensure that 40 percent of its sustainability investments are directed to disadvantaged communities.
The infrastructure package is expected to face more resistance in Congress, and at least one influential economist—Lawrence Summers, who served as Treasury Secretary for Bill Clinton and top economic adviser to President Barack Obama—warned that the steep cost of the Covid bill could slow momentum toward that larger goal.
“How will political and economic space be found for the public investments that should be the nation’s highest priority?” he asked in an opinion column in The Washington Post.
But the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats are listening to economists who say that the greater risk is spending too little—as they believe Obama did in his economic stimulus package, which was in part engineered by Summers.
“One of the reasons we know it was inadequate is it took us six-and-a-half years before we reached employment levels that prevailed in December of 2007, which was the onset of the global financial crisis,” said Ellen Hughes Cromwick, senior resident fellow of the climate and energy program at the centrist think tank, Third Way.
Cromwick argues the United States can’t afford a similarly slow recovery, especially when the needs for infrastructure, clean energy and jobs investment are so evident.
“We have another crisis on our hands here, another shock that we’re staring in the face, which is climate,” said Cromwick. “And if we don’t start decarbonizing our environment, we are going to have bigger and bigger crises that are going to confront the U.S. American households and businesses.”