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EPA to Disperse $1M in “Environmental Justice” Grants

BRIAN KOENIG
New American
December 13, 2011

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced last Thursday that 46 tribal and nonprofit organizations are being granted a combined one million dollars of taxpayer money to fund “environmental justice issues.” According to the EPA, such “issues”translate as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to” the environmental decision-making process.

Environmental justice will be achieved, the agency states, when everyone has “the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards” and equality in obtaining a “healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”

According to the University of Michigan, School of Natural Resources and Environment, “Environmental justice as a social movement has grown rapidly since the early 1990s in response to concerns about disproportionate environmental burdens in poor, indigenous and minority communities.” Moreover, the university indicates that “natural resources and environment played an early and important role in helping bring national attention to this emerging social and political problem.”

In response to these “societal burdens,” President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898 on February 11, 1994, which required federal agencies to develop an “environmental justice strategy” to address such concerns in disadvantaged areas. Regarding agency responsibilities, the executive order stated:

To the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law, and consistent with the principles set forth In the report on the National Performance Review, each Federal agency shall make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations in the United States and its territories and possessions, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the Commonwealth of the Marian islands.

During Thursday’s announcement, the EPA unveiled another grant program — worth an additional million dollars of taxpayer money — which is now seeking 2012 applicants. While proponents of the program claim one million dollars is a drop in the bucket in terms of the EPA’s overall budget, when compounded, the total dollars spent on these types of programs add up to a considerable sum: Since the program’s inception in 1994, the agency has dispersed more than $23 million of its environmental justice grants program to 1,253 community-based organizations.

The 2011 grant program finances a catalog of projects, including a research grant for air quality in a Philadelphia community; a grant to protect children in Boston from asthma and lead poisoning; and a grant to renovate and repair septic systems and water sources at the Red Lake Reservation in Minnesota.

Two organizations in the San Joaquin Valley in California were awarded a combined $50,000 to target air and groundwater quality in communities where primarily low income, Spanish-speaking Latinos reside, including a $25,000 grant for Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice to address diesel emissions. Greenaction will administer community outreach to educate stakeholders (businesses, schools, bus drivers, trucking companies, and parents) about the adverse environmental ramifications of diesel emissions and “encourage equipment changes that will lead to a reduction of emissions and improve residents’ respiratory health.”

The second $25,000 grant was awarded to the Community Water Center, where the funding will be applied to an education campaign that aims to educate residents living in poor, rural communities about the causes and effects of groundwater pollution. The project will “empower residents to take actions to reduce and prevent contamination of the region’s drinking water sources,” and encourage them to become more engaged in San Joaquin Valley drinking water protection efforts and facilitate resident participation in public venues where water quality discussions are held.

Another $24,974 grant was awarded to Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Services for a program seeking to mitigate the effects of indoor air pollution, moderate exposure to toxic cleaning chemicals, and address public health issues resulting from poor sanitation within the Kuhio Park Terrace public housing community in Honolulu, Hawaii. Administered by multilingual and multicultural staff members, theprogram “will empower the predominantly Pacific Islander community of Kuhio Park Terrace by providing resident with necessary information and tools to take ownership of their physical surroundings and thereby improve the health of their families and community.”

Although the EPA’s grant program hones in primarily on environmental concerns, it also seeks to advance “food justice” by recruiting America’s youth to embrace First Lady Michelle Obama’s war on childhood obesity. Through the Institute for Community Collaboration in Hollywood, Florida, one grant program ventures to combat “environmental threats posed by the industrial food system” by empowering underserved teens from poor neighborhoods as environmental and “food justice” advocates. Further,

The program identifies urban food deserts and encourages local residents to advocate for and utilize local food resources, such as farmers markets and community gardens. The program seeks to increase access to healthy foods and green spaces in affected neighborhoods. Youth who complete the 12-week afterschool training will implement a service learning project in their schools or community in an effort to create and maintain local, healthy food resources.

The curriculum for the program will be devoted to educating residents about health disparities while encouraging teens to pursue healthier lifestyles and promote environmental awareness. Among the service aspects of the program are: “Community outreach and peer education; apprenticeships at farmers’ markets; development and/or maintenance of organic community gardens; and conducting food demonstrations that utilize plant-based, local foods.”

“Community-based action and participation in environmental decision-making are critical to building healthy and sustainable communities,” asserted Lisa Garcia, the EPA’s Senior Advisor on Environmental Justice. “By supporting local environmental justice projects in under-served communities, we are expanding the conversation on environmentalism and advancing environmental justice in communities across the nation.”

While proponents could argue that such actions bear useful benefits to society, the question is whether the federal government should usurp its constitutional authority to provide the benefits itself, as it is using taxpayer dollars to do so. If undertaken by a private entity, involving communities in campaigns to cultivate safer environments and practice more “environmentally-conscious” behaviors, the act may seem less like a government-concocted, ideologically agenda, and more as a productive component of society.

Moreover, the federal government’s track record with subsidizing environmental programs is anything but stellar, as agency officials often make “bad bets” and tend to mismanage funds. Take, for example, Solyndra, a company that Energy Department officials anticipated would revolutionize the solar industry — but instead, ended up being a colossal failure that pinned down taxpayers with a half billion dollar tax bill.

While a government-backed form of “environmental justice” may seem noble, the medium to which such equity is “achieved” is a disservice to the American people, and arguably, a form of taxpayer injustice.

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