Harris County leaders were shocked last year when they learned their Texas communities, which had borne the brunt of Hurricane Harvey’s wrath in 2017, were getting no federal disaster aid from state officials in charge of disbursing the funds.
The Category 4 storm tore through Gulf Coast states, resulting in at least 88 deaths and causing a record $125 billion in damage. For Harris County, which includes the city of Houston and its neighboring suburbs, the devastation was pronounced.
Heavy rain pummeled the urban hub of 6.6 million people for days, destroying 204,000 homes and at one point submerging one-third of Houston underwater. It was therefore ludicrous, local officials and activists argued, that with $4 billion in federal aid going to Texas to help with flood preparation in the wake of Harvey, not a single Harris County municipality was lined up to get any of it.
Federal officials agreed. In March, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said in a report that the Texas General Land Office, run by George P. Bush, scion of the Bush dynasty, had discriminated against minority residents and violated federal civil rights protections by denying aid to Harris County. HUD urged the state agency to remedy the situation or risk legal action.
For many in the environmental justice movement, the news highlights the critical role often played by states in the distribution of federal funds and underscores a potentially serious problem for President Biden’s ambitious environmental justice agenda, much of which hinges on the execution of the administration’s Justice40 initiative.
Justice40 directs federal agencies to align their environmental and clean energy funding so that 40 percent of the “overall benefits” of that spending goes to “disadvantaged communities.” But since local and state governments largely dictate how the money they receive from the federal government gets used, activists say it’s unclear how a program like Justice40 will be enforced—especially in states like Texas, where Republican leadership has continued to defy federal guidance.
“I think it is sort of a cautionary tale,” Ken Kramer, who ran the Texas chapter of the Sierra Club for 23 years before retiring in 2012, said of the ongoing dispute between HUD and Texas state leadership. “Basically a lot of federal programs are being implemented directly or indirectly through state and local officials,” many of whom don’t view environmental justice as “a priority issue.”
After the HUD report in March, the Texas land office agreed to send Harris County $750 million of the roughly $1 billion in federal flood aid that Texas has so far distributed. But as the state prepares to allocate the next round of flood aid, the agency appears to be once again diverting that funding away from the Gulf Coast, where advocates say it’s most needed, a recent analysis by The Texas Tribune found.
Instead, that money is set to go to predominantly White, rural counties where natural disasters are far less of a threat. The small agricultural community of Coryell County, for example, is slated to receive $3.4 million in Harvey-related flood aid, despite being located 220 miles from the ocean and having lost zero houses to the storm.
The agency’s latest moves have come as money from last year’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package begins to flow to states, cities and other local governments. Last month, the White House announced that $110 billion had already been approved for more than 4,300 projects across the nation.
Activists want that money filtered through Justice40, saying it will help ensure it’s being distributed equitably and reaches the most vulnerable communities. And the infrastructure law itself gives some special consideration to disadvantaged communities, mainly by guaranteeing a certain share of competitive grants go to areas where census data indicates there is “persistent poverty.”
But more than three-quarters of the infrastructure funding will go to states in what’s known as formula funding, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution, a progressive think tank. Unlike competitive grants, formula funds leave little room for the federal government to include restrictions that prioritize certain applicants. And Republican governors have made it clear that they plan to fight any “social agenda” that the Biden administration attempts to place on such funding.
“Excessive consideration of equity, union memberships, or climate as lenses to view suitable projects would be counterproductive,” Republican governors from 16 states wrote in a letter to President Biden in January. “Your administration should not attempt to push a social agenda through hard infrastructure investments and instead should consider economically sound principles that align with state priorities.”
Still, the Biden administration has tried in some ways to steer federal infrastructure money toward Justice40, mainly by creating specific grant pools that can be filtered through the program or that already have equity and environmental aspects built into them. In May, the White House announced that $29 billion in federal funding, including from the instructure bill, was already being filtered through Justice40 to support housing, clean up environmental hazards and support jobs in coal communities.
That money includes the Department of Transportation’s $500 million program aimed at replacing diesel school buses with electric ones, which the agency said will also prioritize applications from disadvantaged communities.
Diesel pollution disproportionately harms communities where people of color live, in part because highways and other heavily trafficked thoroughfares were typically built through neighborhoods that had less money and political power to stop the projects.
The Department of Energy has also built environmental justice considerations into who can access the $8 billion in new infrastructure money that’s going toward building regional clean hydrogen hubs. Applicants bidding for those grants “should include meaningful engagement” with local stakeholders, “with a focus on disadvantaged communities, tribal communities and communities with environmental justice concerns,” the agency announced in February.
DOT has built similar application guidance into formula funding for electric vehicle charging stations, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told Inside Climate News. Buttigieg said his agency is also “engaging closely with state leadership” on many important issues, including environmental justice.
But Maria Lopez-Nunez, a longtime social justice activist and a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, or WHEJAC, said she doesn’t believe the amount of money the administration is filtering through Justice40 is nearly enough to accomplish the kind of transformative change activists want to see the program bring about.
“I would love to hear about new programs that are being created, or vast expansion of existing programs” instead of more “status quo,” she said. “It’s the status quo within agencies that led to huge disparities across the country.”
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Now, with summer construction just around the corner, activists are doubling down on their calls for federal safeguards to ensure state legislatures and governors don’t interfere with the goals of Justice40.
Mustafa Ali, the vice president of environmental justice, climate and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation, and a former career staffer at the Environmental Protection Agency, said in an interview that states should be working to build their own offices of environmental justice to help with enforcement.
Last month, WHEJAC sent its final recommendations to the White House, which included a request that four federal agencies—the Department of Commerce, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Homeland Security—develop new policies to ensure governors spend disaster aid in “an equitable and nondiscriminatory way.”
Most of the agencies responded by pointing to programs that already had equity considerations built into them, rather than new policies that could help hold Republican state leaders accountable.
HHS, for example, underscored a $500 million injection of new infrastructure funding into the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. That program specifically provides financial assistance to low-income families who need help with paying energy bills or minor energy-related home repairs.
Lopez-Nunez found that response underwhelming. “I want to be clear, this isn’t a Democrat or Republican issue—every administration has been discriminatory toward environmental justice communities, or we wouldn’t be in this mess,” she said. “So we all need to do better.”
Ariel Gans contributed to this report.