Environmental justice advocates look to historic $3.5T spending bill for bold action

By: - August 21, 2021 11:00 am

Environmental justice is a goal of Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget proposal. (Photo by Vitaly Taranov via Unsplash)

Congressional Democrats and the Biden administration want to use their massive $3.5 trillion spending plan to help communities that have been devastated by environmental pollution and degradation.

For years, activists have been pushing for government recognition of what’s known as environmental justice, the broad movement to provide restitution to communities that have suffered disproportionate harm.

The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that passed the Senate earlier this month fell short of their wishes, advocates say. But Congress gets another chance in the $3.5 trillion budget and spending plan lawmakers are now writing.

Historically, federal infrastructure initiatives and industrial policy have often hurt low-income communities and communities of color.

“The history of our country is — it’s not devoid of infrastructure pushes, it’s just devoid of infrastructure pushes that help communities of color and poor communities,” said Julian Gonzalez, legislative counsel at the environmental group Earth Justice.

Infrastructure bill 

With infrastructure, climate change and racial justice among the top issues he campaigned on, President Joe Biden has given environmental justice prominence.

His infrastructure proposal mentioned the term five times, calling for programs meant to fight climate change to focus benefits on disadvantaged communities that have borne the brunt of “legacy pollution.”

But although the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that the U.S. Senate passed earlier this month included funding to electrify buses, record spending on transit and other areas that could be considered parts of environmental justice, it fell short of what’s needed, advocates said.

“From our perspective, they don’t go far enough,” Elizabeth Yeampierre, a co-chair of the national advocacy group Climate Justice Alliance, said of the bipartisan bill.

The bill has drawn criticism for reinforcing highways as the dominant mode of U.S. transportation, a situation that has already led transportation to be the worst sector for greenhouse gas emissions.

Part of the disappointment among progressives may stem from the bipartisan nature of the Senate bill, which cut funding levels for some programs from what Biden had proposed.

For example, the White House infrastructure plan called for $45 billion to replace lead pipes and service lines. That figure was in line with a March request from environmental groups.

Lead water pipes in cities like Detroit and elsewhere in the industrial Midwest drive up water prices and have negative health impacts.

The degraded infrastructure is part of the legacy of “white flight” of the last half of the 20th century, when many white residents left cities for suburbs, said Kristy Meyer, an associate director at Freshwater Future, a group that advocates for protecting waters of the Great Lakes.

But the bipartisan bill included just more than $15 billion, about one-third of the original request.

‘It has to be bold’

The $3.5 trillion reconciliation package that congressional Democrats are now writing as a companion to the infrastructure bill and will try to pass without Republican support offers another opportunity to go bigger, advocates said.

Environmental activists “view reconciliation as a chance to really build off of and expand on the bipartisan bill and fulfill a lot of the lofty goals that the administration and Democrats in Congress at least have spoken about,” Gonzalez said.

“What we have now is an opportunity to do a reset that looks at a legacy of environmental racism,” Yeampierre said. “It has to be bold because climate change is coming in bold. This is an opportunity right now. This could be the most significant investment in stopping climate change in U.S. history.”

The reconciliation bill should “cover a variety of needs all over the United States,” Yeampierre said. The needs vary across the country, she said.

Some communities might need coastal resilience infrastructure to guard against rising sea levels. Others may need to replace aging lead water pipes.

Throughout the country, expanding transit and transitioning to electric buses would help, she said.

People in Toledo, Ohio, face high water bills because of the need to remove lead and harmful algal bloom that results from agricultural runoff in Lake Erie, and many in poor communities are unable to bear the cost, Meyer said.

Previous COVID-19 relief bills have provided some help in the form of a $1.1 billion grant program  to help people pay their water bills.

The funding won’t be enough for communities like Toledo, Meyer said, and Congress could use reconciliation to add funds to the program.

“It’s a Band-Aid,” she said. “It’s curing a symptom and not the disease.”

A better approach would be to help local systems upgrade infrastructure to more permanently lower costs, she said.

Lawmakers mum

It’s unclear so far how Congress will address these issues. As committees in both chambers are working on different sections of the bill, lawmakers are saying little publicly about what is involved.

The Senate reconciliation instructions ask the Environment and Public Works Committee to make “environmental justice investments in clean water affordability and access, healthy ports and climate equity.”

An outline of the House process released by Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmouth, D-Ky., said the plan “invests in clean energy, efficiency, electrification, and climate justice through grants, consumer rebates, and federal procurement of clean power and sustainable materials, and by incentivizing private sector development and investment.”

But congressional leaders haven’t made public what those efforts will look like in practice.

A spokesman for Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Thomas E. Carper, D-Del., didn’t respond to messages seeking comment. A spokesman for House Natural Resources Chairman Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., declined to comment.

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.