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Climate

A Year Before Biden’s First Term Ends, Environmental Regulators Rush to Aid Disinvested Communities

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The cafe on Commerce Road in Richmond, not far from the Virginia State Capitol, smelled of the freshly brewed latte the barista had just poured for the customer waiting on the other side of the counter. 

A crack in the clouded canopy overhead let beams of sunlight trickle through the glass windows, brightening the spacious interior of the coffee joint on the rainy, late January morning. 

The only other customer in line was Adam Ortiz, administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Mid-Atlantic region, attired in a business suit, a tie and mud-stained sneakers. 

He was in Richmond with his EPA colleagues on a two-day visit to environmentally stressed communities in and around the city for what he called “ground-truthing.” It involved seeing and hearing firsthand from the communities, he said, about what his office could do to help them address the impacts from pollution sources, often located next to low-income communities of color. 

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“It’s incumbent on EPA to proactively engage these communities because they don’t have the means to show up to their member of Congress’ office in Washington or figure out who to write to,” Ortiz said, glancing at his watch. “So, we have to go there and hear from the people firsthand because some things don’t show up in our desktop exercises.”   

To Ortiz, these listening sessions were key to understanding the situation on the ground and a means to forge partnerships with local groups and state agencies, a prerequisite for bringing federal funds to bear on the problems community partners had identified during such meetups.        

“Today, we’re meeting with community leaders in South Richmond, which is a community of concern from an environmental justice perspective. I’m going to be there for the first time,” said Ortiz, noticing the dried mud sticking to his sneakers from a similar visit the day before. 

“I came prepared to step in the mud,” he quipped, adding hastily that the previous day he visited Brown Grove, a historic rural district in Virginia’s Hanover County and a textbook case of environmental racism. In the 1960s, the I-95 highway project cut the community in half, a familiar story repeated nationwide. The predominantly African American community is also impacted by a landfill, a municipal airport and a concrete plant, among sources of pollution. 

At Brown Grove, he said, the group witnessed a situation similar to what he anticipated seeing in other parts of Richmond later that day: a mostly low- to middle-income, African-American community hobbled by decades of disinvestment leading to weak public infrastructure and besieged by industrial pollution. “They told us that a distribution center was built over their ancestral burial grounds, ancient grave sites they hold sacred,” Ortiz added, with a hint of concern. 

A planned distribution center for the grocery chain Wegmans has been fiercely opposed by Hanover County residents, who brought a lawsuit against the proposal after the local Board of Supervisors approved the project in May 2020. Last February, the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled in favor of the residents and, later in May, also turned down Wegmans’ request to review the decision.  

South Richmond, on the other hand, where Ortiz was due for daylong meetings, had its fair share of pollution and historic disinvestment that’d led to a heat island caused by heat-retaining structures and scant green spaces, mainly because of housing discrimination linked to redlining. 

According to a Climate Equity Index map from Richmond’s Office of Sustainability, census tracts on the city’s south side are among the areas where green space is needed the most in order to reduce urban heat and mitigate health impacts. Around 86 percent of residents in these areas are African American and Hispanic, according to census data. 

“We have to make sure that funds are going to places that need them the most in the last year of the Biden administration’s first term,” Ortiz said, “and to come up with solutions to the stubborn environmental justice challenges that the president has committed to address through initiatives like Justice40.” 

Established by executive order, the Justice40 Initiative requires certain federal projects to direct 40 percent of new environmental and energy investments to “disadvantaged communities that have been historically marginalized and overburdened by pollution and underinvestment.” Federal funds from the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act complement the initiative.    

When the clock struck noon it was time for Ortiz and his team to hit the road. The first stop on the list was a vacant elementary school building and a 4-acre plot on Ruffin Road. The school system still owns the property, and the local nonprofit Community Voice has proposed turning it into a community healing space. 

Ortiz has had hundreds of meetings throughout the Mid Atlantic since he became the regional administrator in 2021. He’s come to think of the region as a microcosm of the United States, where coastal communities such as Annapolis, Ocean City and Hampton Roads are impacted by growing climate severities, leading to loss of wetlands and aquaculture, and unstable shorelines. 

Older industrial cities in the region are similarly impacted by pollution, compounded by environmental justice concerns including legacy pollution sources and underfunded public health systems, which hit the Black and brown communities the hardest. Located in Virginia’s  coastal plain, Richmond faces both significant flooding issues and legacy industrial pollution from abandoned brownfield sites leaching contaminants into the ground. 

“Some of these older cities don’t have that tax base anymore and so having the bandwidth to clean up properties and make them ready for reinvestment is beyond their reach,” Ortiz said. But the EPA was now better resourced and more targeted, he noted, enabling the agency to assist communities like those in south Richmond. 

The SUV pulled into the parking lot of a circular, single-story building. In attendance were representatives of the engagement-focused nonprofit Virginia Community Voice (VCV), Democratic Rep. Jennifer McClellan of Virginia’s 4th district, director of Richmond’s Office of Sustainability Laura Thomas and a few elderly residents of the neighborhood who had come to be heard. 

A quick round of introductions ensued. Then, Lea Whitehurst-Gibson, founder and chief executive officer of VCV, leaned into her presentation. “The Virginia Community Voice has been operating in the area since 2017,” she said, “but as an organizer, I’ve been working in Richmond for more than 12 years.”

“When we first came to the south side, people were dying from heat-related issues here more  than the rest of the city. It’s unsafe, the streets lack tree canopy, and climate-related issues are adding to the problem,” said Whitehurst-Gibson, a tall Black woman with broad features in a black dress and knee-high boots. The elderly residents nodded in unison. 

The walking distance to the nearest supermarket or grocery store is more than half a mile and, with more than 40 percent of households having no vehicle, the neighborhood had become a food desert, which the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines as “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other foods that make up the full range of healthy diet.” 

“One more issue we are addressing as an organization is rising housing costs, according to 2022 market value analysis,” she said. “Most areas along the corridor are transitional or stressed markets, meaning that they have lower housing values and more renters than owners.” 

To Whitehurst-Gibson, these shortcomings were rooted in the history of disinvestment and enslavement, and securing a better future necessitated remedying the injustices of the past.     

“We are the former capital of enslavement and the former capital of the Confederacy. But what we want to be known for in Richmond is a place of healing,” she said. 

The EPA could help her group acquire this vacant property, Whitehurst-Gibson said, adding that the nonprofit had the plans ready to transform the large empty building into a “healing hub,”a bilingual, multi-purpose space for relaxation that would care for the elderly and a place for sports and learning for the young. 

“The healing hub is something I feel really strongly about both personally and as a community,” she said, adding that the plan included setting up a language and translation center because Richmond had a growing Spanish-speaking population.

“We recognize that in the city of Richmond, there have been historically disenfranchised communities who experienced redlining and other discriminatory policies,” said Thomas. As director of the city’s sustainability office, created about a year and a half ago, her work focuses on the nexus of climate change and racial equity. 

Under her leadership, the city passed its first ever climate equity action plan—RVA Green 2050—last year, aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030, achieve net zero emissions by 2050 and help communities adapt to the climate impacts of extreme heat, precipitation and flooding.

“There’s a lot of distrust in local government because of previous policies. And so we want to make sure that we’re building that trust with the community-based organizations,” Thomas said. “We recently received $6 million under the Inflation Reduction Act to support a Black- and brown-led urban greening efforts across the city. And that involves community-based organizations helping to transform communities in ways that they see fit.”  

Whitehurst-Gibson, who was listening intently, was quick to point out that the next stop on the tour was a greening initiative her nonprofit was implementing in partnership with the City of Richmond Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities with a grant from the EPA. 

In 2023, the agency approved funding for the community group to install vegetable gardens and a rainwater harvesting system at the Oak Grove playground, also located on the south side, about a mile from the school building. Among the project’s goals was to create green jobs for residents and improve equity in access to green space.

The group split up and, following a brief 10 minute drive, reassembled at the Oak Grove playground. The vast open field had nine raised garden beds for growing seasonal fruits and vegetables. A playground occupied a nearby space in the grassy plot. Swings, structures to climb and slides stood empty on this chilly, cloudy day. 

Rodney Gaines (right), a
coordinator with Virginia Community Voice, briefed representatives from the EPA and Richmond’s Office of Sustainability about the social benefits of turning the vacant school property into a ‘healing hub’ for the South Richmond’s disinvested neighborhood. Credit: Aman Azhar/Inside Climate News

Rodney Gaines, a short, stout man who worked as coordinator with VCV, described how he recruited a group of local volunteers and prepared the ground for the garden beds, and plans were afoot to grow fresh crops from February onward.   

“We also have people we hired to steward the garden to help the community take care of the garden,” Whitehurst-Gibson chimed in. The stewards were hired to boost green employment, one of the project’s goals, and also because resident volunteers couldn’t dedicate a certain time everyday, she explained. A small number of residents were trained and employed to maintain the garden in addition to the volunteers, she added. 

“Since this area is a food desert, the idea is for the residents to feel invested in the community garden and come pick the produce for free when it’s ready,” Gaines said.   

The setting reminded Ortiz of his previous job. In 2019, Montgomery County, Maryland, tapped him to lead its Department of Environmental Protection, where he oversaw, among other initiatives, a composting and waste management facility. “You think it is dirty,” he said, holding soil in cupped hands. “But when you smell it, it’s like healthy soil and has a cool smell to it because it’s rich in nutrients if they do it right.”  

McClellan had been keenly observing and asking questions throughout the tour. The first black woman elected to Congress from Virginia in a special election almost a year ago, she said she was happy that the EPA was partnering with Black-led community groups in Richmond to mitigate long-standing environmental justice issues waiting to be addressed. 

“We’re a purple state, trending blue. When we had a Democratic trifecta in state government in 2020 and 2021, we passed the first environmental justice law,” McClellan said. “So we began the process of embedding environmental justice in state government. But then, the governorship and the house flipped.” 

Gov. Glenn Youngkin has been voicing his opposition to climate and environmental policies since he took office in January 2022. He plans to withdraw Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a multistate carbon cap-and-trade program the state agreed to join under Democratic administrations. Environmental advocates have opposed the move but Youngkin, a Republican, has branded RGGI as a tax on electricity users with no environmental benefit. 

McClellan said that now the Democrats had taken back the General Assembly and efforts were afoot to move environmental justice policies forward. “But it’s new. So I do think the political will is there. But in a divided government, it’s just a little harder to go from a vision to implementing,” she cautioned.  

McClellan said that in days ahead her office will actively look for more ways to partner with the EPA to be able to help the community access greater resources from the state and federal government. “Contrary to our assumption, communities do understand how the government works. The job for my office is to make sure that they are able to leverage available resources,” she added. 

The last stop on the list was the office of the Southside Community Development Corporation, the oldest Black-run nonprofit organization in Richmond working on affordable housing. 

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To Ortiz though, the engagement had already achieved what he intended. In the last year alone, he participated in more than 100 meetings with communities and other stakeholders, with half of those consultations focused specifically on environmental justice communities. 

The thousands of miles Ortiz and his team traveled in 2023 to distressed neighborhoods have resulted in 21 environmental justice grants totalling over $13 million, which will be awarded to government agencies and community organizations in the coming months. He said these funds are meant to address the historical injustices he had heard communities and advocates talk about during the visits.

“The south Richmond visit allowed us to lean in and strengthen our relationships within the community and collaborate with state and local partners,” Ortiz said, strapping on his seat belt. The next steps, he added, will be to bring resources for air and water monitoring, helping remove community exposure to lead, brownfield cleanup grants and getting voluntary actions from industry such as help with remediation.

But despite the recent unfavorable decisions handed down by a conservative Supreme Court, such as the ruling in Sackett v. EPA that reduced the agency’s regulatory powers over the nation’s water, agency managers think that the EPA still has broad enforcement powers and a wiggle room to address environmental challenges.  

“There’s unquestionably been some setbacks from the courts. But we’re stepping up our efforts and have made significant changes in how we regulate greenhouse gasses and we’re focusing on frontline communities. So we’re more strategic,” Ortiz said. “I think there’s lots of reasons for hope. But again, the worst thing we can do is to not do anything.”

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