Billions in environmental justice funds hang in the balance
Tens of billions of dollars for U.S. environmental justice initiatives originally proposed in a $3.5 trillion domestic spending package now hang in the balance as Democrats decide how to trim the bill down to $2 trillion.
Investments in a wide range of these projects were proposed in the Build Back Better plan, but Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona demanded that the bill be reduced, with Manchin asking for it to be cut by as much as half.
Now, Democratic leaders are trying to bridge divergent views of progressive and moderate lawmakers over the size and scope of the bill. With Republicans in lockstep against President Joe Biden’s proposal, Democrats must hold together slim House and Senate majorities to pass it. Leaders have set an Oct. 31 voting deadline, but that may slip as they struggle for consensus.
Several congressional aides who spoke on background to discuss ongoing negotiations said no one can venture an estimate of how much environmental justice spending will be cut from the reconciliation bill, but the overall amount for such initiatives certainly will be less than the roughly $80 billion originally proposed.
The biggest spending proposals were $20 billion for replacing America’s lead water pipes, nearly $15.5 billion for a greenhouse gas reduction fund and $10 billion for expanding access to public transit near affordable housing. Among the other initiatives were $5 billion in block grants to environmental and climate justice projects, $2.5 billion for providing access to solar in low-income communities and $2.5 billion for abandoned mine cleanup.
The high-stakes wrangling is taking place about two months after the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change called the warming planet a “code red for humanity” and just weeks before world leaders, including Biden, convene to determine global climate and environment policy at the U.N. climate change summit known as COP26.
As domestic spending talks take place in Washington, environmental justice advocates around the country are watching closely and lobbying lawmakers to preserve as many initiatives and as much money for them as possible.
“When we hear that the $3.5 trillion will be watered down … it’s honestly unacceptable,” said Ellen Sciales, communications director for Sunrise Movement, a national, youth-led environmental group. “The urgency of now really cannot be (overstated).”
Local and regional environmental activists have held protests across the nation for several weeks, calling on Senate Democrats to pass the entire $3.5 trillion package. With a reduction in the package looming, activists worry environmental justice projects that could improve the health of their communities will be sacrificed.
“If Congress does not pass a full deal, … it would be devastating,” said Juan Jhong-Chung, policy associate with the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition. “It would represent another broken promise by our elected officials.”
Environmental advocates have been banking on Biden’s promise just days before the presidential election to pass “the most ambitious environmental justice agenda ever.” He was speaking at a news conference in Flint, Michigan, where residents have been dealing with a lead contamination crisis in its water systems since 2014.
“Our people are already struggling,” Jhong-Chung said. “And now with the climate crisis, things are getting worse here in Michigan. We just experienced this summer of record-breaking flooding.”
Water sanitation and scarcity issues top of the list of pressing needs for many in disadvantaged communities as rural areas countrywide lack modern sewage and sanitation systems, and the West deals with a megadrought.
Catherine Flowers, who serves on Biden’s White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and long has advocated for clean water and sanitation systems in rural areas, is concerned for places like predominately black Lowndes County, Alabama, where many residents have to release their wastewater directly into the environment.
“When people talk about environmental justice, they never talk about sanitation,” she said. “The assumption was that rural communities have always had it, and that’s not true.”
In Arizona, with its drought, some of Sen. Sinema’s constituents have aggressively pushed her to pass the Build Back Better plan in its entirety, going so far as to confront her on the campus of Arizona State University, where she’s a professor.
Hannah Hurley, a spokesperson for Sinema, said she would not reveal the nature of negotiations on Capitol Hill to news media. The other key senator in negotiations on the plan, Manchin, has publicly opposed incentivizing clean energy over fossil fuels, such as coal produced in his state. His office did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Some western senators publicly support environmental justice spending proposed in the plan.
“Environmental justice is not an issue adjacent to climate action, it is at the heart of climate action,” said Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.). “We can no longer ignore the inequities that leave communities of color behind and bearing the brunt of the climate crisis.”