Tens of billions of dollars for US environmental justice initiatives originally proposed in a $ 3.5 trillion domestic spending package are now on the line as Democrats decide how to lower the bill to $ 2 trillion.
Investments in a wide range of these projects have been proposed in the Build Back Better plan, but Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema of Arizona have called for the bill to be reduced, with Manchin calling for it to be reduced by half.
Now, Democratic leaders are trying to bridge the divergent views of progressive and moderate lawmakers on the size and scope of the bill. While Republicans are stuck against President Joe Biden’s proposal, Democrats must hold together slim majorities in the House and Senate to pass it. Leaders have set a voting deadline of Oct. 31, but that could slip as they fight for consensus.
Several congressional officials who spoke on the merits to discuss the ongoing negotiations said no one can estimate the amount of environmental justice spending that will be cut from the reconciliation bill, but the aggregate amount of these initiatives will be certainly less than the roughly $ 80 billion initially proposed. .
The largest spending proposals were $ 20 billion to replace US lead water pipes, nearly $ 15.5 billion for a greenhouse gas reduction fund, and 10 billion dollars. dollars to expand access to public transportation near affordable housing. Other initiatives included $ 5 billion in global grants for environmental and climate justice projects, $ 2.5 billion for access to solar power in low-income communities, and $ 2.5 billion for cleaning up abandoned mines.
The high-stakes feuds come about two months after the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change called global warming a “code red for humanity” and just weeks before world leaders, including Biden, come together to determine global climate and environmental policy. at the UN climate change summit known as COP26.
As home spending talks take place in Washington, environmental justice advocates across the country are watching closely and lobbying lawmakers to preserve as many initiatives and as much money as possible for them.
“When we hear that the $ 3.5 trillion will be diluted… that’s honestly unacceptable,” said Ellen Sciales, communications director of Sunrise Movement, a national youth-led environmental group. “The urgency of the present really cannot be (overestimated). “
Local and regional environmental activists staged protests across the country for several weeks, calling on Senate Democrats to pass the entire $ 3.5 trillion package. With a reduction in the package looming, activists fear that environmental justice projects that could improve the health of their communities may be sacrificed.
“If Congress doesn’t approve a full deal,… it would be devastating,” said Juan Jhong-Chung, political associate with the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition. “This would represent another broken promise from our elected officials. “
Conservationists banked on Biden’s pledge just days before the presidential election to adopt “the most ambitious environmental justice agenda ever.” He was speaking at a press conference in Flint, Michigan, where residents have faced a crisis of lead contamination in its water supply systems since 2014.
“Our people are already in trouble,” Jhong-Chung said. “And now, with the climate crisis, things are getting worse here in Michigan. We have just experienced record flooding this summer.
Sanitation and water scarcity are at the top of the list of urgent needs for many underprivileged communities, as rural areas of the country lack modern sewage and sanitation systems and the West is facing a crisis. mega-drought.
Catherine Flowers, who sits on Biden’s White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and has long advocated for clean water and sanitation systems in rural areas, worries about places like Black County Lowndes, Alabama, where many residents must discharge their wastewater directly into the environment.
“When people talk about environmental justice, they never talk about sanitation,” she said. “The assumption was that rural communities always had it, and that’s not true.
In Arizona, with its drought, some of Senator Sinema’s voters aggressively pushed her to embrace the Build Back Better plan in its entirety, even going so far as to confront it on the Arizona State University campus, where she is. professor.
Hannah Hurley, spokesperson for Sinema, said she would not reveal the nature of the Capitol Hill negotiations to the media. The other key senator in the plan negotiations, Manchin, has publicly opposed pushing clean energy rather than fossil fuels, such as his state-produced coal. His office did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Some Western senators publicly support the environmental justice spending proposed in the plan.
“Environmental justice is not an issue adjacent to climate action, it is at the heart of climate action,” said Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.). “We can no longer ignore the inequalities that leave communities of color behind and bear the brunt of the climate crisis. “
Associated Press reporter Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report from Washington, DC
Follow Drew Costley on Twitter: @drewcostley
The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.