Concerns Raised about Equity of Northeast Pollution Pact

Photo: Max Pixel.
Photo: Max Pixel.

A major climate initiative binding northeastern states won’t sufficiently benefit the low-income communities and people of color who have been disproportionately affected by pollution unless it is improved dramatically, grassroots environmental organizations charge.

The Transportation and Climate Initiative, an initiative of 12 Northeastern states and the District of Columbia, proposes to cap greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and invest the proceeds raised from polluters into greener options, such as electric cars, public transit, and biking and walking infrastructure. Over a decade, the pact would reduce area greenhouse gas emissions by 20 to 25 percent, advocates say — and studies show it would prevent “1,100 pollution-related deaths and 4,700 childhood asthma cases annually up and down the East Coast,” especially benefiting vulnerable communities.

But environmental activists say that’s not enough, given nearly a century of policies with disproportionate impact on minority and low-income neighborhoods, which should “be the first in line to fund the projects that will benefit them, because they have been the last in line for all of the benefits so many decades,” said Eleanor Fort, deputy director of the environmental and social-justice group, Green for All.

Communities lacking political clout have faced an array of problems. In just the first 20 years of the interstate system, which began in 1956, highways cleaved scores of low-income and minority neighborhoods, displacing over a million Americans — with effects still felt today. For instance, in 2017, a Latinx community in Denver has asthma hospitalization rates 40 percent higher than the rest of the city, with 13 percent more deaths from heart disease.

All communities have suffered air pollution, but Black and other communities of color have had the worst of it — with “communities of color in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic breath[ing] 66 percent more air pollution from vehicles than white residents,” according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In addition, Green for All reports that race is twice as important as income in determining exposure to nitrogen oxide from tailpipe pollution. And a recent study found that majority Black neighborhoods have excessive paved areas and few trees, causing heat-related illnesses and even poor school performance.

Underserved communities also face inadequate walking infrastructure, leading to pedestrian deaths and injuries. Strikingly, Blacks are hospitalized 20 percent more often than Whites after being struck by cars, according to one study.

Despite these disparities, the 2019 Memorandum of Understand [PDF] among the TCI signatories lacked adequate environment justice rules, said Fort. For her, TCI risks repeating the mistakes of the Regional Greenhouse Gases Initiative, an earlier agreement on power generation that, she claims, lacked adequate funds for vulnerable communities. That pact, for example, created a fund for home energy efficiency and weatherization that went “mostly to single-family homeowners,” she said. Inhabitants of multi-family and rental units who tend to be lower income were dependent on landlords who have little financial incentive to apply for the energy efficiency rebates.

Nearly 50 grassroots organizations sent a March 2020 letter [PDF] calling for the creation of community advisory committees to provide local representation from underserved communities in deciding how TCI money is spent. It is not enough to “leave it up to the states and the states’ equity advisory committees to define what is an overburdened and underserved population,” said Tony Cherolis of the Center for Latino Progress. In addition to more grassroots representation, TCI needs to include strong language defining how the money will be distributed.

Without a legal guarantee, Fort added, the risk is that TCI will create “a blank check to spend on whatever political whim the governors have.”

In response to criticism, TCI partners have moved toward a new standard in which 35 percent of funds go toward overburdened and underserved communities, to account for disproportionate impact — which could amount to as much as $2 billion in the first year of the program, Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center, which helps facilitate TCI, told Streetsblog.

Indeed, TCI parties have been working to integrate environmental justice into the planned final MOU, through a series of roundtables and panels, along with online feedback, that has engaged thousands of people. The partners are hard at work developing environmental justice standards, as reported in a Sept. 29 webinar. Arroyo pointed out that since public outreach around TCI began in 2017 and 2018, “a robust process” has taken place, with “equity voices both speaking and invited,” including those most critical of TCI.

Furthermore, TCI funds would likely help local projects already underway, but with inadequate funding, such as electric buses, electric automobile charging stations in low-income communities, and cleaner trucks and ports. Equity Advisory Bodies “composed of diverse stakeholder groups, including residents of underserved and overburdened communities,” would further help decide where and how money is spent, as stated at the webinar.

But Green for All and seven other grass-roots environmental justice organizations asked for TCI funding to be increased to 50 percent — a share that is sufficient to counteract the long-term under-investment and pollution burden of these communities.

Even a 35-percent commitment does not necessarily mean that all directed funds will go entirely to vulnerable communities. Grassroots organizations remain concerned that TCI money will be funneled more toward affluent communities than those communities who suffer disproportionately from air pollution and inadequate infrastructure.

For instance, says the 2020 letter, money could go toward an “electric bus fleet that would serve express bus commuter routes that travel through, but do not stop in, low-income communities,” mostly “benefiting middle-income workers.”

Funds directed toward electric vehicles might also be more likely to help the affluent. Instead, grassroots organization believe that more TCI money should go to buses, better sidewalks and street crossings, and biking infrastructure in historically underserved communities. Cherolis said of a Connecticut program meant to provide electric cars to low-income communities, “calling it a low to moderate income improvement isn’t really accurate; it’s a moderate income to high income incentive.”

TCI official Arroyo said the existence of state equity advisory groups would ensure that TCI money will “give a significant shot” to projects as electrifying school and transit buses, a process already underway in many states but in need of more funding. This would reduce or eliminate fumes from diesel buses and bus terminals that plague vulnerable underserved communities.

Cherolis lives and works in a neighborhood in Hartford, Conn. that has a median annual income of $34,000 — and where roughly half of the households don’t have a car.

“It is an urban, low-income, very diverse, majority-minority neighborhood and city,” he said. As such, he doesn’t want a repeat of the earlier pact, which, he said, provided money for improvements in richer areas.

But Arroyo emphasized that the process “includes opportunties to weigh in on” a new Memorandum of Understanding in late 2020, followed by a model rule and future legislation. There is still plenty of room “to ensure benefits from the program flow to those who need them most.” The process is long and complex, but perhaps at the end will most benefit those who have suffered from decades of neglect.

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