Environmental justice advocates look to historic $3.5T spending bill for bold action

By: and - August 25, 2021 9:56 am

Climate protest before the Democratic debate. July 30, 2019 | Andrew Roth

Congressional Democrats and the Biden administration want to use their massive $3.5 trillion spending plan to help communities that have been devastated by environmental pollution and degradation.

For years, activists have been pushing for government recognition of what’s known as environmental justice, the broad movement to provide restitution to communities that have suffered disproportionate harm.

The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that passed the Senate earlier this month fell short of their wishes, advocates say. But Congress gets another chance in the $3.5 trillion budget and spending plan lawmakers are now writing.

Historically, federal infrastructure initiatives and industrial policy have often hurt low-income communities and communities of color.

“The history of our country is — it’s not devoid of infrastructure pushes, it’s just devoid of infrastructure pushes that help communities of color and poor communities,” said Julian Gonzalez, legislative counsel at the environmental group Earth Justice.

Last week, the Michigan Alliance for Justice in Climate, a coalition of environmental and social justice organizations across the state, held a press conference advocating for investment in climate justice priorities in the $3.5 trillion budget bill. U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) was part of the virtual event.

“We are already seeing the disastrous impacts of climate change here in Michigan; extreme flooding in the state has devastated communities and the economy this summer,” said Desirae Simmons of Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice. “We must invest in our infrastructure to ensure that we are able to recover from, prepare for, and mitigate the impacts of current and future climate disasters.”

Branden Snyder of Detroit Action said they are “calling for Democrats to keep their promise and Congress to fight for climate justice, care jobs, and an infrastructure bill that works for all of us. This means no cuts to the investments in renewable energy, the care economy, public transit and buildings, and the Civilian Climate Corps.”

Infrastructure bill 

With infrastructure, climate change and racial justice among the top issues he campaigned on, President Joe Biden has given environmental justice prominence.

His infrastructure proposal mentioned the term five times, calling for programs meant to fight climate change to focus benefits on disadvantaged communities that have borne the brunt of “legacy pollution.”

But although the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that the U.S. Senate passed earlier this month included funding to electrify buses, record spending on transit and other areas that could be considered parts of environmental justice, it fell short of what’s needed, advocates said.

“From our perspective, they don’t go far enough,” Elizabeth Yeampierre, a co-chair of the national advocacy group Climate Justice Alliance, said of the bipartisan bill.

The bill has drawn criticism for reinforcing highways as the dominant mode of U.S. transportation, a situation that has already led transportation to be the worst sector for greenhouse gas emissions.

“The climate crisis, the pandemic, racial injustice, and mass unemployment and economic distress all demand action from our elected officials in Washington,” said Jesse Deer In Water, who is with the Michigan group Citizen’s Resistance at Fermi Two. “Instead, our communities are learning that the infrastructure bill includes subsidies for nuclear energy, carbon capture, and hydrogen. These technologies are harmful to [environmental justice] communities. They poison our communities. They divide our communities.”

Part of the disappointment among progressives may stem from the bipartisan nature of the Senate bill, which cut funding levels for some programs from what Biden had proposed.

For example, the White House infrastructure plan called for $45 billion to replace lead pipes and service lines. That figure was in line with a March request from environmental groups.

Lead water pipes in cities like Detroit and elsewhere in the industrial Midwest drive up water prices and have negative health impacts.

The degraded infrastructure is part of the legacy of “white flight” of the last half of the 20th Century, when many white residents left cities for suburbs, said Kristy Meyer, an associate director at Freshwater Future, a group that advocates for protecting waters of the Great Lakes.

But the bipartisan bill included just more than $15 billion, about one-third of the original request.

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‘It has to be bold’

The $3.5 trillion reconciliation package that congressional Democrats are now writing as a companion to the infrastructure bill and will try to pass without Republican support offers another opportunity to go bigger, advocates said.

Environmental activists “view reconciliation as a chance to really build off of and expand on the bipartisan bill and fulfill a lot of the lofty goals that the administration and Democrats in Congress at least have spoken about,” Gonzalez said.

“What we have now is an opportunity to do a reset that looks at a legacy of environmental racism,” Yeampierre said. “It has to be bold because climate change is coming in bold. This is an opportunity right now. This could be the most significant investment in stopping climate change in U.S. history.”

The reconciliation bill should “cover a variety of needs all over the United States,” Yeampierre said. The needs vary across the country, she said.

Some communities might need coastal resilience infrastructure to guard against rising sea levels. Others may need to replace aging lead water pipes.

Throughout the country, expanding transit and transitioning to electric buses would help, she said.

People in Toledo, Ohio, face high water bills because of the need to remove lead and harmful algal bloom that results from agricultural runoff in Lake Erie, and many in poor communities are unable to bear the cost, Meyer said.

Previous COVID-19 relief bills have provided some help in the form of a $1.1 billion grant program  to help people pay their water bills.

The funding won’t be enough for communities like Toledo, Meyer said, and Congress could use reconciliation to add funds to the program.

“It’s a Band-Aid,” she said. “It’s curing a symptom and not the disease.”

A better approach would be to help local systems upgrade infrastructure to more permanently lower costs, she said.

Lawmakers mum

It’s unclear so far how Congress will address these issues. As committees in both chambers are working on different sections of the bill, they are saying little publicly about what is involved.

The Senate reconciliation instructions ask the Environment and Public Works Committee to make “environmental justice investments in clean water affordability and access, healthy ports and climate equity.”

An outline of the House process released by Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmouth, (D-Ky.), said the plan “invests in clean energy, efficiency, electrification, and climate justice through grants, consumer rebates, and federal procurement of clean power and sustainable materials, and by incentivizing private sector development and investment.”

But congressional leaders haven’t made public what those efforts will look like in practice.

A spokesman for Senate Environment and Public Works Chair Thomas E. Carper, (D-Del.), didn’t respond to messages seeking comment. A spokesman for House Natural Resources Chair Raul Grijalva, (D-Ariz.), declined to comment.

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter in the States Newsroom Washington bureau. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues as well as climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.

Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 21-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 4,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 70 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.