Biden promised billions for environmental justice. Will it get into the right hands?
On a warm August day in rural Louisiana, local residents, environmental advocates and utility representatives packed into a courthouse for a controversial summit.
St. James Parish officials were weighing a temporary ban on solar.
The parish, west of New Orleans, is part of what’s known as “Cancer Alley”: the biggest cluster of petrochemical facilities in the state with some of the highest cancer risk in the country.
It’s been deemed a “sacrifice zone” by ProPublica. Across the country, Black, brown, Indigenous and low-income people are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards, like the plants in Cancer Alley.
Sharon Lavigne, a Black, retired teacher and longtime activist, has been asking for a moratorium on petrochemical plants for years. She founded Rise St. James, a faith-based grassroots community group fighting for environmental justice in the area.
She’s tired of seeing her community sick and her neighbors die of cancer.
At tonight’s hearing, she finds herself fighting again.
“You want a moratorium on solar. This is not what we want,” Lavigne said. “We need a moratorium on petrochemical facilities, because this is Cancer Alley, and people are dying.”
The council passed the solar moratorium 6-1.
For Lavigne, it’s one more loss in the arduous, uphill struggle of environmental justice that she and many others nationally are used to fighting. As she demands clean energy expansion for her polluted community, her elected officials have decided against it, citing economic and environmental doubts.
Lavigne and other environmental justice activists don’t want to wait for clean energy, clean air or clean water. And now, more money is on the table than ever before for communities like hers to turn the tide on those issues.
A historic pledge
President Biden signed an executive order in January 2021 representing the biggest federal commitment to environmental justice in the nation’s history. It’s intended to help communities like Lavigne’s achieve their clean energy goals and more, all while keeping the most vulnerable communities in mind.
The White House program promises 40% of climate-related funding, spanning programs across all areas of government, will go toward historically disadvantaged communities, including low-income communities and communities of color.
In addition to combating climate change and emissions, the promise is also meant to apply to funding for clean energy, affordable and sustainable housing, workforce development and more.
Hundreds of programs from more than a dozen federal entities, including the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Agriculture and Department of Labor, are included in the Justice40 initiative.
Some of those programs include:
- Funding for electric vehicle transition under the Department of Transportation.
- Rural workforce development under the Department of Labor.
- Abandoned mine reclamation under the Department of the Interior.
- Flood risk mapping and preparedness under the Department of Homeland Security.
- Native vegetation restoration under the Department of Agriculture.
“The environment is everything,” said Robert Bullard, director of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice at Texas Southern University and widely known as the father of environmental justice. “It’s where we live, work, pray, learn…that doesn’t leave a whole lot out.”
Beverly Wright, founder of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, compared the breadth of Justice40 to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in its potential to reshape communities.
“If you do right by poor communities living with pollution, guess what? The reduction of pollution reduces greenhouse gasses and helps the planet,” Wright said. “We all benefit.”
Hopes and dreams
In Louisville, systemic racism has made the West End deadly.
Life expectancy in the area hovers around 70 years — about a decade shorter than the eastern side of the metro, according to the 2017 Louisville Metro Health Equity Report.
Bordering the West End is Rubbertown. Similar to Cancer Alley in Louisiana, it hosts a concentration of industrial plants in close proximity to Black and low-income neighborhoods, putting them on the frontline of toxic air.
Eboni Cochran, an advocate with Rubbertown Emergency ACTion, has a family go-bag ready in case of an industrial disaster. Chickasaw Park and other areas of Cochran's neighborhood are in the 98th percentile nationally for proximity to Risk Management Program facilities — facilities where the handling of "extremely hazardous materials" necessitates emergency response procedures.
“We have to pull away from it every once in a while, because if you think about what's going on, it really becomes a very depressing situation,” Cochran said. She tries to instead find joy in the rich history, good people and green space in her neighborhood.
Environmental factors are a part of the area’s gloomy statistics, but redlining, lending patterns and disinvestment starting as early as the 1930s exacerbated the inequities.
Today, Ninth Street acts as a dividing line and I-264 slices through the West End, adding carcinogenic diesel emissions to the already noxious air.
“America is segregated,” said Bullard, “and so is pollution.”
West End residents don't even know what they're breathing, and Cochran said that's been a big part of REACT’s focus.
Federal funding could go a long way toward establishing a comprehensive, real-time air monitoring system that would allow those residents to know what they’re breathing and whether it’s safe to go outside, Cochran said.
Live, accessible monitoring that tells residents which chemicals are in the air could also help trace emissions back to specific polluters.
Proximity to several facilities handling hazardous materials also creates the need for preparedness resources for residents, Cochran said, another place where Justice40 funding could be put to work.
Local government will also play a part in achieving funding for those local efforts.
Louisville’s Air Pollution Control District, the local air regulator, hasn't yet formed a plan to optimize Justice40 opportunities, but the program "aligns with our priorities and certainly has the potential to help the work we are already doing," APCD spokesperson Matt Mudd said in an email.
The APCD is eyeing funding for air toxics monitoring, electric vehicle charging infrastructure and more, which could fall under Justice40, and also offers itself as a resource for helping organizations like REACT access that funding.
Programs falling under the Justice40 umbrella could also aid rural communities.
Rural electric cooperatives in Kentucky, for example, remain heavily reliant on coal, and are in debt to the tune of billions as the coal industry declines. Rural utilities nationally are facing similar challenges.
The Department of Energy has 146 different programs covered by Justice40, many of which could help fund rural communities' transition to renewable energy.
‘A seat at the table’
In all, the program provides an unprecedented opportunity to disadvantaged communities across the country to turn around centuries of inequities. The White House said about $29 billion of funding opportunities were part of Justice40 as of May.
But minority communities aren't quick to wholeheartedly trust government promises, and barriers have already begun to crop up.
Even in the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, generally perceived as the single biggest piece of climate legislation in the nation's history, activists said Senate Democrats exaggerated — by billions of dollars — how much funding would go toward disadvantaged communities, Inside Climate News reported.
And in January, 16 Republican governors signed a letter to the president, warning him not to push a “social agenda” through “excessive consideration of equity, union memberships, or climate as lenses” when considering infrastructure investments.
For the Justice40 program to do what the White House pledged it will, environmental justice experts say community engagement will be key.
"I think there should always be a partnership," said Cassia Herron, past chair for the nonprofit advocacy group Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. "Whether or not that actually plays out is a whole other question."
Herron is a Black Kentuckian who has spent much of the two decades since her graduation from the University of Louisville as a community organizer in the fields of agriculture and climate.
She was also a consultant on a study from UCLA's Luskin Center for Innovation on Justice40, which was intended to guide policymakers on how to formulate the federal program.
"What I know that frontline communities are saying is that we want a seat at the table," Herron said. "Justice 40…could really provide the opportunity for local governments to be working in partnership with the community.”
But advocates say there’s a disconnect between the initiative and the frontline communities that need help, said Latricea Adams, a Memphis-based member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council of which Bullard and Wright are also members.
The question of accountability
Applying for federal funding tends not to be easy. Adams said seeking those funds will be a matter of capacity, not will.
“We’re gonna have to hustle to try to get these applications in,” Adams said. “We have the expertise to get these resources, and we can do so much more if we have more funding and have more people that are actually compensated for the work that they’re doing in the community.”
The White House is still determining how it will track its progress toward its 40% pledge.
“That part is the million-dollar question,” Adams said.
Jalonne White-Newsome, senior director for environmental justice at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said they’re still in the process of creating the methodology to ensure they meet the benchmark.
In pursuit of transparency, the advisory council has requested a system to track the location of the programs, as well as their successes.
‘A war for our health’
Despite what environmental justice organizers are up against, Cochran said concerted efforts have produced victories in the past.
In 2005, Louisville’s Air Pollution Control District launched the Strategic Toxic Air Reduction program. The city credits the program with reducing toxic chemical emissions by 70% since its rollout.
Cochran said REACT and grassroots efforts had a big part to play in the program’s implementation by constantly attending city meetings, being part of the conversation and garnering support from the public.
But the communities most affected by environmental harm — low-income and minority communities — usually lack the time and resources to invest in these issues.
“We are fighting against multi-million and multi-billion dollar corporations,” Cochran said. “When we go to stakeholder meetings, we have to leave our jobs, take our sick time, annual leave, whatever, to go to a meeting that's in the middle of the day.”
Once again, it seems the Justice40 initiative will call on those most impacted by environmental issues to fight for a solution.
“This is a war,” Bullard said. “This is a war for our lives, and a war for our health.”
This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with Report For America and funded by the Walton Family Foundation.