The announcement of new funds comes as the agency ramps up its investments in environmental justice initiatives, a core focus of the Biden administration’s climate policies.
Communities of color have historically been among the most affected by unfavorable environmental policies, and poor air pollution is just one impact, EPA administrator Michael Regan said in an interview with CNN.
“Communities of color and environmental justice communities have been impacted by a number of systemic policy decisions that have been made, whether it be transportation, looking at roads and highways that cut through the heart of many of these communities, whether you look at failed drinking water systems … or whether you look at facilities that spew pollution in closer proximity than other communities,” Regan said.
More than 40% of Americans live in areas with unhealthy air quality, and people of color are most negatively affected by it, according to a recent report from the American Lung Association. Low-income communities also face higher health risks from air pollution, the association reported. The report outlines a variety of reasons for these health inequities, including that pollution sources like power plants, highways and industrial facilities were often placed in low-income communities of color and that people experiencing poverty lack financial resources to relocate from polluted areas.
The EPA plans to direct funding to air quality-monitoring agencies to watch for particles that have been linked to harmful illness in these communities.
“These resources will go to air quality monitoring in communities that need it the most,” Regan said, “so that we can ensure as an agency that we are adequately protecting all communities.”
The American Lung Association’s “State of the Air”‘ report shows more than 135 million people in the US live in counties with unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution, which can lead to asthma issues and even lung cancer in extreme cases.
People of color are most affected by poor air quality, the report found, and are 61% more likely than White people to live in a county with a failing grade for at least one pollutant. They are also three times more likely to live in a county that failed all three air quality grades measured in the report (ozone pollution, “short term” particle pollution and “year round” particle pollution).
Air pollution has also taken on added significance amid the Covid-19 pandemic, as research from Harvard suggests a link between higher levels of long-term air pollution and increased death rates from Covid-19.
“Our communities of color and low-income communities have been disproportionately impacted for generations and COVID-19 exacerbated the health disparities that we have seen or been seen in these communities,” Regan explained. “If we can properly monitor the air quality in these communities, we begin to alleviate many of the stressors that put these communities at an uncompetitive advantage when the pandemic first hit.”
As part of the American Rescue Plan, Congress allocated $100 million to the EPA for projects targeting health disparities from pollution and Covid. Last month the agency unveiled the $50 million that would be used in various ways to help identify underserved communities and address “disproportionate environmental or public health harms and risks” in these neighborhoods through a series of initiatives, including education and training.
In its announcement Wednesday, EPA said it will launch a grant competition calling for proposals on the monitoring of pollutants that are found in communities with health outcome disparities. The competition, which is planned for later this year, is aimed at strengthening communities’ abilities to monitor their own air quality, as well as facilitating collaboration between those communities and state, local and Tribal partners, the agency says.
Although he did not give a timeline for when the funds would be disbursed, Regan stressed the urgency and said the agency is putting the framework in place to get the resources out as quickly as possible.
The EPA administrator also said the agency would be relying on experts in its environmental justice office as well as relying on existing partnerships with community organizations to ensure that the money goes to the communities that need it the most.
“We’re laser-focused on how we can get these precious resources to those who need it the most,” Regan said. “And I’m confident that we have the staff expertise, we have the existing relationships, and we’re going to leverage our state and tribal partnerships to get the job done.”
The issue of air quality is also personal for Regan, who struggled with asthma during his childhood in eastern North Carolina.
“I’m one of those children who grew up using an inhaler. I understand what it’s like when you can’t get that breath,” he said at a CNN town hall earlier this year.