Congressional Democrats and the Biden administration want to use their massive $ 3.5 trillion spending plan to help communities devastated by pollution and environmental degradation.
For years, activists have pressed for the government to recognize what is called environmental justice, the broad movement to compensate communities that have suffered disproportionate damage.
The $ 1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that was passed by the Senate earlier this month did not meet their wishes, advocates say. But Congress has another shot at the $ 3.5 trillion budget and the spending plan lawmakers are in the process of 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 is not without infrastructure, it is simply lacking in infrastructure that helps communities of color and poor communities,” said Julian Gonzalez, legislative counsel for the environmental group Earth Justice. .
With infrastructure, climate change and racial justice among the main issues he campaigned on, President Joe Biden has given environmental justice a prominent place.
Its infrastructure proposal mentioned the term five times, calling for programs to tackle climate change to focus benefits on disadvantaged communities who have suffered the brunt of “legacy pollution.”
But although the bipartisan $ 1.2 trillion infrastructure bill the U.S. Senate passed earlier this month included funding for bus electrification, record spending on public transit and ‘other areas that could be seen as elements of environmental justice, it has failed to meet the needs, advocates said.
“From our perspective, they don’t go far enough,” Elizabeth Yeampierre, co-chair of the national advocacy group Climate Justice Alliance, said of the bipartisan bill.
The bill has drawn criticism for strengthening freeways as the dominant mode of transportation in the United States, a situation that has already made transportation the worst sector for greenhouse gas emissions.
Part of the disappointment among progressives may stem from the bipartisan nature of the Senate bill, which reduced 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 lines in cities like Detroit and elsewhere in the industrial Midwest drive up water prices and have negative health effects.
The degraded infrastructure is part of the legacy of the “white robbery” of the latter half of the 20th century, when many white residents moved from cities to the suburbs, said Kristy Meyer, associate director of Freshwater Future, a group that campaigns for the protection of the waters of the Great Lakes.
But the bipartisan bill included just over $ 15 billion, or about a third of the original request.
“You have to be daring”
The $ 3.5 trillion reconciliation package that Congress Democrats are now writing as a companion to the infrastructure bill and will attempt to push through without Republican support provides another opportunity to go further, said the defenders.
Environmental activists “see reconciliation as a chance to really build on the bipartisan bill and expand it and achieve many lofty goals that the administration and Democrats in Congress have at least talked about,” he said. Gonzalez said.
“What we have now is an opportunity to do a reset that examines a legacy of environmental racism,” Yeampierre said. “It has to be bold because climate change is coming in bold. It’s an opportunity right now. This could be the single largest investment in stopping climate change in US history. “
The reconciliation bill is expected to “cover a variety of needs across the United States,” Yeampierre said. Needs vary across the country, she said.
Some communities may need coastal resilience infrastructure to guard against rising sea levels. Others may need to replace aging lead water pipes.
Across the country, expanding mass transit and shifting to electric buses would help, she said.
Residents of Toledo, Ohio face high water bills due to the need to remove lead and harmful algal blooms resulting from agricultural runoff in Lake Erie, and many poor communities are unable to bear the cost, Meyer said.
Previous COVID-19 relief bills provided aid in the form of a $ 1.1 billion grant program to help people pay their water bills.
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 bandage,” she said. “It is to cure a symptom and not the disease.”
A better approach would be to help local systems upgrade infrastructure to reduce costs more permanently, she said.
Mum of lawmakers
It is not yet clear how Congress will approach these issues. While the committees of both houses work on different sections of the bill, they do not say much publicly about what is at issue.
The Senate reconciliation instructions call on the Environment and Public Works Committee to make “investments in environmental justice in the accessibility and affordability of clean drinking water, healthy ports and climate equity.”
An overview 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 through subsidies, consumer rebates and federal purchases of clean energy and sustainable materials; and by encouraging private sector development and investment.
But congressional leaders have not made public what these efforts will look like in practice.
A spokesperson for Senate Environment and Public Works President Thomas E. Carper, (D-Del.), Did not respond to messages seeking comment. A spokesperson for House Natural Resources president Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona) declined to comment.