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Leon Kaye headshot

Companies Have Been Put on Notice to Focus on Environmental Justice

The EPA announced it will provide $50 million for environmental justice programs; that should put more pressure on companies to take on such problems.
By Leon Kaye
environmental justice

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has long volleyed back and forth from being a lukewarm environmental enforcer to serving as a friend of industry, depending on who is in charge at the White House. Meanwhile, many communities of color have long suffered due to the lack of effective policies centered around environmental justice.

But last week, the EPA announced it will soon provide $50 million for environmental justice initiatives through funds made available under the American Rescue Plan (ARP), the coronavirus stimulus package announced by incoming President Joe Biden on his first day in office. As a response to the ongoing pandemic, the U.S. Congress has set aside such funding for grants, contracts, and programs that identify and take on environmental or public health threats in underserved communities.

For example, one program will allocate $200,000 for a mentoring program in Baltimore, Maryland. A new on-the-job training program will train young adults so they can be employed in full-time jobs within the evolving water industry. Participants will learn skills such as water quality monitoring, sampling, and reporting with the goal to boost water quality in urban and rural communities and, in the long run, find people to fill decent-paying water infrastructure jobs.

That $50 million is only a start. There is talk of even more funds in the next annual federal budget, but of course, considering how polarized Capitol Hill has become, that’s a hope, not an expectation communities can bank on.

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The change of tone, nevertheless, should put companies on notice, and that includes just about any business in any industry — including the energy and logistics sectors.

For example, companies doing business in the oil-rich Gulf Coast have long profited from the U.S. energy boom, but largely at the expense of communities of color. “I have witnessed how the oil and gas industry has dominated the Gulf Coast region at the expense of Black communities, engulfing our neighborhoods with massive amounts of toxic pollution from oil refining and manufacturing,” Beverly L. Wright, the executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, recently wrote for Scientific American.

Amazon’s spectacular growth in recent years has also made it a target of environmental justice advocates. In California’s Inland Empire, located east of Los Angeles, for example, local communities have chaffed at the company’s expanded investment in warehouses for several years, saying all the trucks that come with those facilities are polluting their neighborhoods. Amazon says it is responding in kind, with investments such as rooftop solar power and more electric vehicles for its fleets.

The solutions are complicated with no easy outcomes. Yet the bottom line is that more activists are saying they are tired of their neighborhoods having to suffer from the social impacts (including noise) and environmental impacts (including emissions) of these companies’ operations.

Oft-recited solutions for the surging warehouse boom are also not necessarily enough to sway the communities in which they are often located. Target has come under fire for its plans to turn a former coal power plant into a distribution center — one that could add around 2,000 jobs with wages starting at $18 an hour. But locals objecting to the project say a conversion to electric trucks is not enough. “We can’t get caught up in just a conversation around, ‘Yes, let’s just electrify everything and that’ll be the end of our problems,’ because it won’t be,” Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, said in an interview with the Energy News Network. “There’s still a massive concern around how many warehouses are coming into low-income communities of color.”

At a minimum, companies need to take note from both the news at EPA and the rising voices within the environmental justice movement: At a minimum, if they seek to avoid additional regulations and a sullied public reputation, a commitment to lowering the impact of their companies’ operations needs to catch fire now.

Image credit: Nehemias Mazariegos/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye