Many low-income communities and communities of color in the U.S. have not always enjoyed the environmental and public health benefits of environmental safeguards. These communities and their advocates have long demanded redress of the unequal environmental burdens they experience, and had been hopeful that the progress made under President Obama’s EPA would continue and improve under a new administration.
But those hopes were recently dashed by President Trump’s proposed EPA budget, which allocates exactly zero dollars and zero cents to Environmental Justice programs within the agency. Where will the environmental justice EPA work be housed? There are few details, but the proposed budget says it will be incorporated into the Integrated Environmental Strategy (IES) program, which has provided assistance for environmental and public health initiatives in developing countries and has been supported by USAID. This clearly signals the incoherent position that the Trump administration sees environmental justice as a matter of foreign aid and development policy! Furthermore, as the IES program is housed under the EPA Office of the Administrator, it moves environmental justice matters closer to the sorts of political manipulation and disregard for science we have seen in Scott Pruitt’s EPA.
The callousness with which the Trump administration treats vulnerable communities on the frontlines of environmental contamination is not surprising, however. In a previous post, I warned of Pruitt’s appointment as ominous for environmental justice communities, and others called out the need for an EPA leader who would protect and strengthen the existing human and environmental health protections. The EPA’s long-time Environmental Justice assistant administrator, Mustafa Ali, recently resigned from his post at the agency after being dismayed at the deep cuts to grants and programs to safeguard our most vulnerable populations.
But among all of these recent actions that do not bode well for the environmental justice community, I am relieved to see that Representative Pramila Jayapal is standing up for vulnerable communities. Rep. Jayapal has just introduced a bill to establish an office of Environmental Justice at the EPA, and to create a small grants program.
How can communities benefit from an Office of Environmental Justice? Small grants to environmental justice communities foster the development of community-based partnerships that can improve environmental conditions in those communities, in areas like clean water and air, land revitalization, and environmental health. For example, a $25,000 grant was awarded in 2010 to a community learning center in Hawaii to educate the community on the public health and climate change challenges affecting the local community. This kind of program is essential to increase the capacity of low-income and minority communities to “create and implement local solutions to environmental justice concerns where they live,” and to reduce the environmental burdens to which they are disproportionately exposed.
We thank Rep. Jayapal for introducing legislation that will continue to benefit climate-vulnerable communities. The EPA itself knows of the benefits of this kind of program, as it keeps track of federal collaboration with environmental justice communities. That is great testimony to the multitude of fruitful partnerships that environmental justice communities and the agency had engaged in until recently. We need an EPA that values the health of people and the environment we all live in. Rep. Jayapal ‘s bill is a step in making sure our government fulfills its constitutional obligation to protect us all.