By Jeffrey Karp, Senior Counsel and Edward Mahaffey, Law Clerk
A cornerstone of the Biden Administration is environmental justice, which EPA defines as "the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies."
On April 7, EPA Administrator Michael Regan sent an email to all agency staff discussing the agency’s renewed commitment to environmental justice, and included four specific directives to all EPA offices. The first directive is stronger "enforcement of violations of cornerstone environmental statutes and civil rights laws in communities overburdened by pollution." (The memo does not identify what Mr. Regan considers "cornerstone environmental statutes" or which civil rights laws over which the EPA has enforcement authority.) The second is immediate incorporation of environmental justice considerations into the work of all EPA offices, "including assessing impacts to pollution-burdened, underserved, and Tribal communities in regulatory development processes and considering regulatory options to maximize benefits to those communities." The third directive involves "early and more frequent engagement with pollution-burdened and underserved communities affected by agency" actions, including regular consultation with Tribal officials. Finally, the email states that EPA offices should "consider and prioritize direct and indirect benefits to underserved communities in the development of grant applications and in making grant award decisions, to the extent allowed by law." Regan also noted that he and the rest of EPA’s senior leadership would establish more detailed plans and "measures of accountability" for environmental justice over the next few months.
EPA already has begun implementing the grant program directive in the Administrator’s memo. In March, EPA announced grant funding of up to $6 million under the Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving (EJCPS) Cooperative Agreement Program and the Environmental Justice Small Grants (EJSG) Program, emphasizing, for example, areas such as "COVID-19 concerns faced by low-income communities and communities of color" and "Climate Change and Natural Disaster Resiliency outreach and planning." Grant proposals are due May 7, 2021, and the projects funded are to begin October 1, 2021.
Moreover in his budget request for fiscal 2022, submitted to Congress on April 9, President Biden included $936 million for a new Accelerating Environmental and Economic Justice initiative at EPA. This initiative would fund among other programs "a new community air quality monitoring and notification program, which would provide real-time data in the places with the highest levels of exposure to pollution."
The President’s budget request also included several environmental justice initiatives to be initiated by other federal departments. For example, funding would be provided to establish an Office of Climate Change and Health Equity within the Department of Health and Human Services. If approved, the 2022 budget request also would fund Department of Agriculture water and sewer infrastructure grants targeting Native American and poor rural communities, as well as environmental justice initiatives to be undertaken by the Department of Justice’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division.
Further, Congress is considering action on environmental justice issues; hearings on environmental justice and climate change will begin later this week. Keep an eye on our blog for reports on these Congressional hearings.