Why Congress Must Invest in Environmental Justice and Equity in the Next Recovery Package

May 5, 2020 | 4:15 pm
Derrick Jackson
Adrienne Hollis
Former Contributor

People of color. The elderly. Women and LGBTQ people. Low income families. These are some of the most vulnerable among us. As such, they must be the focus of Congressional attention.

A recent report by nonprofit Kresge Health has drawn a straight line from these most vulnerable people to the likelihood of living near hazardous waste facilities. They are more likely to lack economic stability, education, housing and transportation options and even safe drinking water. Congress has it in its hands to change this as it crafts its next recovery package.


Early practices have set the stage for challenges faced by communities of color and poor communities today


In the United States, communities of color and/or low income have been forced to live within certain city and state boundaries, both real and imaginary. A 2016 study found that long-term exposure to particulate matter is associated with racial segregation, as more highly segregated areas suffer higher levels of exposure. According to a 2018 study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, the effects of redlining practices, initiated almost 90 years ago, are still being felt by communities. The segregation practices continue with expulsive zoning – where facilities that polluted the environment are intentionally sited in or near areas inhabited by people of color, guided by the NIMBY – Not In My Back Yard – stance held by those living in more desirable areas in suburbia, where the educational system is better, as is access to healthy foods and greater economic wealth.


How we begin to mitigate environmental challenges for vulnerable communities


For starters, we should provide additional funding for environmental cleanup.

Given the relationship between COVID-19, air pollution and communities of color, it is imperative that funds are allocated to clean up contaminated areas, which might in turn, decrease the susceptibility of communities of color to the virus.

As of Nov. 8th, 2019, there were approximately 1,335 federally identified Superfund sites in the U.S. and its territories. Those sites include previous manufacturing facilities, processing plants, mining sites, and landfills. In addition to Superfund sites, there are also sites earmarked for action through EPA’s Superfund Alternative Approach Agreements. This number doesn’t include Brownfields, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) sites or other sites that have yet to be addressed.

A 2018 EPA report which examined facilities across the country that emit air pollution, to calculate the burden of those emissions on groups according to economic level, race and ethnicity, concluded that “those in poverty had 1.35 times higher burden than did the overall population, and non-Whites had 1.28 times higher burden. African Americans had 1.54 times higher burden than did the overall population.” This translates to a 54 percent increase for African Americans.

People of color are exposed to environmental pollution at a rate that far exceeds White communities. The 2018 EPA study above indicated that inhaling particulate matter (PM) leads to higher rates of asthma, heart attacks and lowered life expectancy rates. PM (also called particle pollution) is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. Some particles, such as dust, dirt, soot, or smoke, are large or dark enough to be seen with the naked eye and others are very, very small. That exposure is more likely for residents living in neighborhoods with polluting facilities, underscoring the need to clean up polluted areas. This is particularly important given that environmental protections that were designed to regulate pollution have been either rollbacked or suspended. As I mentioned in a previous blog, enforcement actions in these and other areas are lax. In some states like Alabama, environmental injustices still continue, leading to more pollution in communities of color and more adverse health challenges.


Ensure  cleanup of legacy coal sites


Eighty-eight percent of coal-fired electricity generating plants were built between 1950 and 1990. The average age of an operating facility is 39 years.“ As of December 2018 (the most current data available), there were 336 predominantly coal-fired power plants still in operation in the U.S.

One of the most toxic remnants of coal burning is coal ash. It is the byproduct of coal residue material remaining after coal is burned. It has been estimated that hundreds of coal-fired power plants collectively produce 140 million tons of toxic coal ash waste every year and that waste is stored at 1,425 sites in 47 States. Coal ash contains at least fifteen toxic pollutants, including heavy metals like arsenic, selenium, chromium, lead, uranium, and mercury.

According to an Earthjustice report, 70% of coal ash has been dumped in low income communities and more than 200 coal ash sites have contaminated nearby waters – which local communities use as sources of drinking water. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People –(NAACP) report Coal Blooded found that as there is no proven technology that can “clean” coal, the entire coal energy cycle — from mining, to combustion, to the disposal of coal ash — is harmful to communities” in spite of President Trump’s claims regarding “clean coal.”

For a more detailed account on coal workers and coal communities, Jeremy Richardson has two excellent blogs discussing the need for federal action to address issues related to coal mining and use, as well as the negative health effects workers suffer as a result.


Three ways Congress can help communities be prepared to address environmental challenges


(1) Provide Additional Funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)

LIHEAP is an essential program to help low- and fixed-income families pay for energy costs so they can be healthy and safe. LIHEAP assists eligible households with their heating and cooling energy costs, bill payment assistance, energy crisis assistance, weatherization and energy-related home repairs.

Energy burden is the percentage of household income spent on home energy bills. A study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) and Energy Efficiency For All (EEFA) concluded that low-income, African-American, Latino, low-income multifamily, and renter households all spend a greater proportion of their income on utilities than the average family. According to the above study, while White households consume more energy overall, black and Latino households have higher energy use intensity, or EUI, usually as a result of segregation where minority families dwell in neighborhoods with older housing stocks and smaller units. Far too many times, people have to choose between paying their energy bill, feeding their families or purchasing needed medications.

According to a study on low income and minority households, residents of minority neighborhoods who make less than 50 percent of area median income (AMI) are 27 percent more energy-cost burdened than residents from the same wage bracket who live in white neighborhoods. This is especially troubling when they also reside in substandard housing or are dealing with poor and aging infrastructure issues. Some community residents feel that they are heating or cooling “the outside” because most of the energy is escaping through poorly insulated and poorly built homes.

In the face of already insurmountable energy bills, now compounded by the climate crisis and the challenges wrought by COVID-19, disadvantaged communities need LIHEAP more than ever. Most homes have faulty or non-existent air conditioning or heating, rendering them more at risk from extreme weather and other climate change-related impacts. During heat waves or days where the heat index is extremely high, it is only natural that a person with no air conditioning will seek a cooler location. But to prevent the spread of COVID-19, cooling centers, malls, libraries and other places people have gone to in the past in order to escape the heat are now closed. Most people have no other choice than to go outside – social distancing is no longer an option for them as they try to escape sweltering temperatures, particularly if they live in an urban heat island.

Current LIHEAP funding is far below that needed by communities of color and low-income communities, particularly during severe crises – such as the COVID-19 and climate crises we currently face. Only one in six eligible households can get assistance. Although the CARES package provided some funding to help, the needs are growing as the economic crisis worsens and more people lose jobs and income.

Congress should provide additional stimulus funding of $10 billion for LIHEAP.


(2) Fund low-income economic development

This pandemic has shown us just how very vulnerable disadvantaged communities are. Many people who are considered ‘essential’ are gig workers – and are low income and/or people of color, a fact that is not lost on us. They cannot afford to stay home during this pandemic, as they need to work to pay the bills. Unemployment has hit an all-time high and has affected many families, including mine. More than 22 million people have filed for unemployment benefits in the past four weeks and 3.8 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits just last week. The real U.S. unemployment rate is around 20% and the U.S. has lost 26.5 million jobs.

When a loved one becomes unemployed or has to work in jobs where the potential for COVID-19 infection is high, that is a wakeup call about the seriousness of this issue. The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated how inequitable the system is. People with low or no income do not have money for rent, or mortgages, or energy bills, or food, or medications. Wealth inequality is glaringly apparent. In an earlier blog, Dr. Sacoby Wilson stated, “one thing that COVID-19 has done is made populations – due to politics, due to economics, due to other issues – that have been made invisible in our country, visible.”

The economic potential of disadvantaged communities is an unrealized resource. Not only could that potential positively affect the country, but it could help move low and middle-income residents, in the words of Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali, ‘from surviving to thriving’. Poor people and people of color want jobs – good, safe jobs with livable wages. Renewable energy and energy efficiency are crucial areas for low income economic development. They are opportunities for communities to own and drive projects and opportunities to repair local economies, generate wealth and provide quality jobs.


(3) Increase funding for worker training programs and community economic development programs across the federal government.

As my colleague Jeremy Richardson stated in part 1 of his two part blog on coal workers, in 2019, approximately 90,000 people worked at coal mines and coal-fired power plants—jobs that pay family-sustaining wages and offer good benefits. These mines and power plants can be found in about 500 of the nation’s 3,142 counties, and many of the counties are rural and offer limited alternatives for dislocated workers. Part 2 offers a number of ways to invest in worker training and community economic development.

Job retraining – particularly related to renewable energy and retrofitting infrastructure – is an opportunity to fill these jobs with people who have, in some cases, been victims of economic oppression. Solar panel installation training and renewable energy training programs would benefit residents in two ways: the residents would be trained in installation practices and would also benefit from having these energy efficiency tools in their communities.

By implementing these three things, Congress can be immediately responsive to the needs of its most vulnerable and ensure that communities are moving from ‘surviving to thriving’. As Dr. Wilson stated, “We can go through the list of natural disasters and man-made disasters that should have been lessons learned, that should have been new protocols that emerged from those disasters.” We did not learn from the past, but we do have the opportunity to create a more resilient, equitable future.