Environmental Justice and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Why the EPA Needs a Funding Boost

Colin Hughes

July 19, 2021

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan recently announced that $50 million from the American Rescue Plan will go toward environmental justice programs at the agency. This award will be accompanied by another $50 million to enhance air quality monitoring to target health disparities. This funding will double the amount of grant dollars for EPA’s environmental justice programs by adding $16.7 million in grants and funding for other programs such as school bus electrification, expanded environmental enforcement, and drinking water safety improvements.

Increased funding for environmental justice programs will foster stronger environmental protections for communities — often low-income communities and communities of color — that are forced to combat a disproportionate share of pollution, toxic exposures, and related health and economic consequences. Investment in these communities seeks to reconcile the gap left by environmental racism and a lack of opportunities to meaningfully engage in zoning, development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws.

As a result of systematic racism, historical practices have led to the concentration of poor communities and communities of color in neighborhoods that contain high concentrations of environmental hazards, such as automobile traffic, power plants, industrial and chemical facilities, and landfills. The already burdened nature of these communities is perniciously attractive to industry, as we've seen in Louisiana's Cancer Alley (or "Death Alley") over many decades.

Disparate pollution burdens result in adverse effects that perpetuate existing societal burdens on communities of color. The effects of air pollution represent the greatest concern as power plants, highways, and other sources located in and near these communities threaten high levels of exposure to harmful pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and fine particulate matter (PM 2.5).

For more than a year, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the disproportionate impacts of environmental harms on communities of color. During the pandemic, Black and Latinx individuals were almost three times more likely to be hospitalized and nearly twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as compared to their white counterparts. This is due to multiple factors, including unequal access to health care, inadequate or overcrowded housing, and inability to work from home. But one major factor, exposure to air pollution, plays a significant role in these disparities.

Exposure to fine particulate matter (PM 2.5), a dangerous pollutant that can lead to premature death from heart and lung disease, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, and difficulty breathing, has been linked to higher rates of mortality due to COVID-19. The side effects of PM 2.5 exposure overlap directly with the COVID-19 risk factors identified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and represent a stunning example of how health outcomes are affected by environmental inequities.

Resolving these disparities and delivering true environmental justice to these communities will take a substantial effort. The industrial sectors regulated by the EPA have grown, demonstrating an increase in activity, while the agency's capacity has decreased. When adjusted for inflation, the EPA’s budget in 2004 was 45 percent higher than it is today, which has forced the agency to cut enforcement activities. This increases the risks associated with unaddressed pollution in overburdened communities. To adequately address environmental racism and support the environmental justice movement, the Biden administration’s EPA will need robust funding.

The American Rescue Plan's $100 million in funding for environmental justice programs and air quality monitoring is a step in the right direction. In the president's FY22 budget request, the administration calls for even bolder investments. These include a 24 percent increase in environmental program funding, with $1.4 billion to support communities disproportionately impacted by environmental harms. Unfortunately, the request will likely go largely ignored by congressional appropriators, but it represents a commitment by the administration to bolster its environmental justice-focused agenda.

Although the spending bill making its way through the House of Representatives is modest relative to the Biden administration’s request, it does reflect an increased commitment by federal lawmakers for environmental justice and compliance. The House Appropriations Committee recommends a roughly $130 million investment in a new Environmental Justice program area at the EPA and an additional $30 million toward compliance activities to provide relief for environmentally burdened communities.

Additional support may also be found in the infrastructure policies currently being debated at the federal level. Investing in infrastructure, with a focus on sustainable sources of energy and resilience to climate change, can provide substantial benefits to communities facing outsized environmental burdens. Biden’s infrastructure plan would invest $174 billion in the electric vehicle market and support expansion of renewable energy which could have a vast impact on air quality in impacted communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that communities are paying the price of poor air quality, and it’s past time for the United States to provide adequate funding and investments to reel in the disparate effects of environmental harms on our communities.

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