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Billions Are Available to Tackle Environmental Racism. Where Is the Money Going?

Under-resourced communities of color are struggling to access funding supposedly allotted for environmental justice.

A welder works on an overpass on the Irving Interchange infrastructure project at the site of the former Dallas Cowboys Stadium on August 10, 2022, in Irving, Texas.

Two years after President Biden’s bold commitment to center under-resourced communities and racial justice in curbing the climate crisis, the funding capable of doing so is materializing — millions at a time — and on an almost daily basis. The record level of public money is intended for projects that address structural racism, such as the disproportionate concentration of high-emitting power plants in communities of color, and the loss of generational wealth and well-being as a result of federal policy decisions that have erased Black communities and encouraged car-centric development.

Announcements have been non-stop. On February 1, the city of San Antonio, Texas, landed $4 million to build refuge islands for pedestrians, while Modoc County and the Fort Bidwell Tribal Reservation in California received $12.9 million to install bike lanes and other safety features along rural roads. On February 14, Colorado was awarded $85 million to address water contaminants. Days later, officials unveiled $50 million in grants to support clean energy development and deployment on Tribal lands. The final days of the month saw Maryland and Pennsylvania scoring tens of millions each to upgrade waste and stormwater infrastructure.

“Not only will these funds expand access to clean water and safeguard the environment, but more underserved communities that have been left behind for far too long will be able to access them,” said Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan in a February 27 statement.

The announcements, and the deadlines required to obtain similar cash, are unfolding at what feels like the speed of light, organizers say. “In reality, this is the first time we’ve seen investments in environmental justice in a federal appropriations bill,” said Dana Johnson, senior director of strategy and federal policy for WE ACT for Environmental Justice. “That’s a big deal.”

The back-to-back disbursements pouring out of numerous agencies, including the EPA and the Department of Energy (DOE), stem from decades of organizing by environmental justice advocates, which resulted in the passage of the $1 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the $396 billion Inflation Reduction Act. An estimated $800 billion of that money is specifically subject to the Biden administration’s Justice40 commitment, which was designed to ensure that communities long subject to unequal amounts of pollution and disinvestment obtain at least 40 percent of the benefits of the infrastructure overhaul, through workforce retraining, air monitoring, investments in renewable energy infrastructure, and other programs.

But as checks go out, some environmental justice organizers say they see early signs that local and state officials are standing in the way of getting the communities most deserving of Justice40 funds the kinds of benefits people living there actually want.

“I Would Lose My House”

One place these tensions are playing out is on the battlefield for awards administered by the Department of Transportation (DOT). Amy Stelly is an artist and urban planner from the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans, who, in October, applied for a grant through the DOT known as Reconnecting Communities. It’s a pilot program intended to address decades of dislocation and disinvestment wreaked on Black neighborhoods by the decision to build federal highways through U.S. cities.

Stelly leads the Claiborne Avenue Alliance, a team of residents, business owners, scholars, and other advocates working on redeveloping a stretch of the avenue where live oak trees, movie theaters, grocery stores, pharmacies and some 500 homes were seized by eminent domain and replaced with concrete slabs and a six-lane expressway in 1966. The group’s proposal for the DOT grant included funding to engage hard-to-reach area residents like renters, the elderly, those with disabilities, and working parents in assessing options for the area; seeking to prevent further gentrification from the project; and the development of a cooperative land trust.

As the Claiborne Avenue Alliance was putting together the group’s $2 million proposal to fund participatory studies of all existing options for the corridor, Stelly said the alliance earned a verbal pledge of support from the head of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD), Shawn Wilson, at an online meeting in May 2022.

But then the DOTD and the City of New Orleans went ahead and submitted their own application for the same project. According to the state agency’s application, which Stelly’s neighbor obtained through a public information request, and Truthout reviewed, state officials sought $47 million for interventions that members of the alliance don’t think will best serve people living nearby and that Stelly says they were not consulted on. The state proposal calls for beautification projects like painting and lighting under the overpass, adding formal parking areas, and delivering what the application refers to as “overpass improvements,” such as drainage and ramp removal.

The alliance, however, is seeking the full removal of that stretch of expressway. Planners contend that the freeway has already reached the end of its intended lifespan of 40 years. Allowing the structure to remain — the paradigm that the state agency’s plan supports — would ultimately require its expansion to meet updated highway standards, which require a 10-foot shoulder the aging expressway does not currently have. To expand the highway in accordance with those standards, the state would need to acquire the right of way. Stelly alleges that would entail displacing people and businesses all over again. “I would lose my house, and historic Tremé as people know it would be gone.”

On February 28, the DOT announced the first recipients of $1 billion in Reconnecting Communities grants. Stelly and others’ community-led vision for Claiborne did not receive any of the money it applied for, while the state got $500,000 toward repurposing a section of the overpass. Wilson, the head of Louisiana DOTD, who Stelly says backtracked on his commitment to the community group and vision, has since stepped down from the position in advance of a run for governor.

Stelly, undeterred by the news, told Truthout that the alliance will continue to partner with public health researchers and city officials in pursuit of their vision for full removal of the stretch of highway in question. “We have to watch the state because they’re about business as usual,” Stelly said.

Sacoby Wilson is director of the Center for Community Engagement, Environmental Justice, and Health (CEEJH) at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health. He told Truthout it’s “unfair” that community-based organizations are having to compete with states and cities for some Justice40 funding, and indicative of what he calls the “toxic pollution politics” that create environmental injustices in the first place. “You have entities that shouldn’t have their hands in the cookie jar,” Wilson said, noting that federal agencies should consider local and state government’s previous track records. “In cities in states that have a history of not adhering to environmental justice principles … they should be found not eligible to apply for these dollars.”

Of the 45 total Reconnecting Communities grants, the majority of which went to states, cities or tribes, four awards landed with community groups. The DOT did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication. But the tension is emblematic of similar conflicts elsewhere, like in Portland, Oregon; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Cincinnati, Ohio, where residents and activists have been opposing officials’ proposals for highway repair and expansion, or requesting more genuine participation in the process.

“Got to Have the Will”

Huey German-Wilson, president of the Northeast Houston Redevelopment Council, says applying for big sums of money like what’s available right now is “intimidating.” German-Wilson is from Trinity and Houston Gardens, also known as Super Neighborhood 48. It’s an area of mostly senior citizens, many of whom live in homes that back up to, or are bound by, a railyard owned by Union Pacific, a company currently under legal fire for contributing to soil contamination in a yard nearby. The area has a lot of natural beauty, German-Wilson said, including an occasional bald eagle. But it is burdened by illegal dumping, for which the City of Houston is under a Title VI civil rights investigation. Much of the area is also highly prone to climate-related disasters — well over half of the homes in the neighborhood flooded during Hurricane Harvey. Even in light rain, “the railroad dams us in,” German-Wilson said.

Trinity and Houston Gardens has a legacy of being left out of local schemes, like the nonprofit Houston Parks Board’s 50-50 program, which in 2019 challenged private companies to sponsor 50 park revamp projects. But German-Wilson says she and other advocates with the Northeast Houston Redevelopment Council have conducted their own research. They visited public spaces across the city to identify what their own parks were missing, like functional swings and designs that anticipate drought and flooding, so the parks can be used in both conditions. Now, they have a plan to address six flood-prone parks, but no funds to bring their vision to life.

As money rolls in from the federal government, German-Wilson is not yet convinced that city officials are leveraging federal investment in a way that will deliver benefits to her section of town. The city has received big awards thus far, including over $20 million from a DOT grant to revamp an area of Telephone Road, in the southeast part of the city; $7.5 million for the Lake Houston Dam Spillway Improvement Project; and $4 million for Park and Community Redevelopment. The City of Houston has not responded to a request for comment on which parks would receive those investments, or if officials plan to partner with groups in Trinity and Houston Gardens on other funding opportunities.

The reality is that the really big tranches of money are going to cities and states, German-Wilson said. “And they’ve got to have the will to pull it down,” she added.

The Northeast Houston Redevelopment Council is currently working on applying for a brand new EPA grant due in April aimed at improving meaningful communication and collaboration between residents of areas like Trinity and Houston Gardens and government entities. “I’m not waiting to see, I’m waging a campaign at this point,” German-Wilson said of her work to join area organizations to tap into these funds, with the technical support of groups like Community Health Collaborative Consulting and the Hive Fund.

All Hands on Deck

In an effort to get hundreds of billions of Justice40 money spent by deadlines the new laws set — before September 30, 2026 in many cases — the EPA has been working to demystify the application process through a series of tutorials on what’s available and how to apply. Workshops from nonprofits, including the Emerald Cities Initiative and CEEJH are available online; and the Equitable & Just National Climate Platform has developed a database for finding and applying for Justice40 grants.

Johnson, of WE ACT, is adding more stops to a Justice40 tour this spring, aiming to bring resources and link communities and elected officials across five states. Next up are Flint and Detroit, Michigan, on March 16 and 18. She says individuals and community groups, however small, can and should be involved in securing historic funds that have the potential to address the brutal impact of environmental racism and economic inequality.

“You need to be reaching out to your city councilor and your mayor and your state representative and asking them, ‘Is someone responsible for all of this federal money? Who is it? Can I talk to them?’” she suggested. “We have to do all that we can to ensure that this opportunity does not pass by communities that have suffered a legacy of disinvestment.”

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