Environmental Justice Funding Picking Up Steam In Chesapeake Bay Region

ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Looking a little like wayward space probes, weather stations on tripods have been popping up around the Baltimore area since spring, beside homes and in churchyards, gardens and vacant lots. 

They’re mechanical scouts for an ambitious $25 million research project led by Johns Hopkins University to explore the impacts of climate change in the urban environment and find ways to alleviate them.

The initiative, called the Baltimore Social-Environmental Collaborative, brings together more than 70 scientists, engineers and other experts from seven universities and two national laboratories. It also includes a robust group of city officials and neighborhood leaders who are helping to guide the effort.

In announcing funding for the project, the U.S. Department of Energy’s science office director, Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, said the work will help fill major gaps in the scientific understanding of urban climate systems. “They will also help us use this knowledge in ways that will empower historically underserved and disadvantaged communities … in urban environments,” she said.

Three years after the George Floyd killing heightened attention on racial justice and equity, federal funding has begun cascading toward projects in the Chesapeake Bay region and beyond that seek to mend longstanding environmental injustice.

In addition to research in the Baltimore area, the projects include helping West Virginia industries reduce pollution in disadvantaged communities, establishing an environmental justice fund in the Mid-Atlantic, and helping utilities in underserved locales.

“The [impact] of what injustices have been on communities is starting to be understood … in the environmental community,” said Carmera Thomas-Wilhite, vice president of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “Now we’re seeing a lot of the federal funding be intersected with that.”

The efforts, advocates say, have been bolstered by a spate of pandemic era funding packages, such as the $1 trillion infrastructure law passed in 2021. They also point to the Biden administration’s Justice40 program, which aims to steer 40% of funding from certain federal environmental investments toward historically disadvantaged communities.

Thomas-Wilhite said that the temporary infusion of federal dollars will help get projects off the ground. But it will be even more critical for local organizations to increase their workforces and obtain sustainable funding to continue the work for years to come.

The Biden administration’s expansive definition of environmental justice has come under fire from some groups because it applies a “race-neutral” standard toward tackling inequities. The strategy may help keep the conservative majority on the Supreme Court from striking it down, but critics worry it will hamper efforts to close health and environmental gaps between communities of color and whiter areas.

Environmental Justice Funding Picking Up Steam In Chesapeake Bay Region
A weather station in eastern Baltimore monitors temperature, precipitation, humidity and sunlight. Instruments to measure soil moisture are being installed by Morgan State University. Timothy B. Wheeler

Some of the Justice40-backed programs in the Chesapeake Bay region, as a result, have a less obvious connection to race.

The spending, though unprecedented, is a drop in the bucket compared to the scale of environmental injustice in the region, supporters say. But it’s a promising start.

“These federal dollars are temporary, but they can be catalytic,” said Kacey Wetzel, vice president of outreach for the Chesapeake Bay Trust, which awards funds from sales of Maryland’s Bay-themed license plate and other sources. “It’s a level of investment we’ve never seen for righting longstanding wrongs.”

Researchers & residents collaborate

The recent federal initiatives each seek partnerships with community members to shape their design and direct funding.

True to its name, the Baltimore Social-Environmental Collaborative project aims to engage a wide swath of the community in deciding what ought to be included in the five-year study.

Ben Zaitchik, a scientist at Hopkins who helped secure the federal grant, calls the team’s approach “knowledge cogeneration.” Researchers are working with neighborhood leaders, city officials and nongovernmental groups, he said, to figure out “what is the science we need based on the solutions that we see for ourselves? And then build the science in response.”

The project has engaged researchers from Hopkins, Morgan State University, the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Penn State and Drexel University, as well as Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Also in the mix are city officials and leaders of two Baltimore neighborhoods, Old Goucher and Broadway East, that have been targeted for study.

The research is broken down into climate-related themes in four primary categories: extreme heat, air pollution (indoor as well as outdoor), urban flooding and decarbonization.

There’s also an “equitable pathways” steering committee, whose job is to provide feedback on whether the research is structured to benefit the community, including those most disadvantaged and at risk. 

Toward that end, Zaitchik said, community leaders “tell us what they think we should study.” They also tell researchers “who else needs to be in the room” to broaden reach for the project. Those studying decarbonization, for instance, focus on “how are we going to hit our greenhouse gas [reduction] targets in a way that’s both feasible and equitable,” he explained.

The project held a kickoff meeting in January and followed up with a fall session at Morgan State examining issues around extreme heat. But the fieldwork is “just being spun up,” Zaitchik said.

About 20 weather stations have been posted so far around the city and suburbs to collect data on temperature, precipitation, humidity and sunlight. Those stations complement summer air measurements that Hopkins has gathered for a decade or so now to assess the urban heat island effect in Baltimore, as well as data on area streams that UMBC researchers have been monitoring for years.

The goal is to bring all the research threads together to identify ways to deal with climate change and weigh tradeoffs that might be involved in pursuing their various combinations.

“We might not get all the way there on all those topics in five years. I’m pretty sure we won’t,” Zaitchik said. But he said it’s critical to quickly demonstrate the value of collaborative research, given the urgency of the climate crisis, which requires both mitigation and adaptation at the same time.

“So, like they say, ‘If you want to move fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,’ ” he added. “We’ve got to go together quickly, and to do that we need these processes that engage people — and a system they can have confidence in.”

Grantmaking power

Another new federally funded program seeks to take collaboration a step further. Under the Mid-Atlantic Environmental Justice Fund, the goal is to “cede power and philanthropy to those most affected by environmental injustice,” said Wetzel of the Chesapeake Bay Trust, which is managing the program.

The trust has partnered with nine other organizations to administer $17 million in federal grant money to communities and community-based organizations that have historically faced constraints in competing for money to address environmental problems. The program will use a participatory grantmaking process, in which members of impacted communities have the power to decide who and what to fund.

“People on the outside can’t do that necessarily as well as the people who face these challenges,” Wetzel said.

In addition to awarding grants to under-resourced groups, program partners will provide outreach and technical assistance. In doing so, supporters say, a larger number of grantees can more effectively address disparities in environmental and public health.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service awarded the grant through its Urban and Community Forestry Program. The funding stems from the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.

Among the trust’s partners in the initiative are Sacoby Wilson, director of the Center for Community Engagement, Environmental Justice and Health and co-director of the Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Center in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Mid-Atlantic region; the National Wildlife Federation; Howard University; the Environmental Finance Center; and a network of regional environmental justice leaders.

“We will achieve environmental justice only when the power, resources and decision-making are yielded to the communities most impacted by environmental harms and related health inequities,” Wilson said in a written statement.

Infrastructure assistance

Moonshot Missions, a nonprofit based in Bethesda, MD, is receiving EPA funds to advance water equity and access “for all,” as the agency press release put it. The EPA has awarded $7.5 million over five years to the organization, which will also serve as one of a handful of National Environmental Finance Centers that helps connect communities to federal and state funds.

George Hawkins started Moonshot Missions in 2018 after spending eight years as general manager of DC Water, where he saw firsthand the difficulties water utilities face in maintaining aging infrastructure. He is credited with helping to transform the utility through an innovative approach to addressing stormwater and wastewater improvements.

Severely under-resourced utilities often don’t have the staff resources to plan and seek grants for larger capital projects or the financial capacity to do the projects on their own.

Water utility managers in Dorchester County, MD, received assistance solving problems with aging wastewater infiltration ponds. (Courtesy of MD Department of the Environment)

“They’re running a fire department basically, dispatching people to fix their broken system,” Hawkins said.

Often, smaller utilities may not know about proven innovations to address problems like energy costs or combined sewer overflows.

Moonshot Missions helps small or under-resourced utilities plan and fund projects that would help them run more efficiently. The $7.5 million that the nonprofit will receive from the EPA will be used to help localities rethink costly infrastructure problems that they may not otherwise have the capacity to address.

Although the EPA funding infusion is just beginning, Moonshot has already been doing work across the country with the help of private foundation and grant funding.

The Campbell Foundation has funded much of its work to date in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, including a recent project in Dorchester County, home to Maryland’s third-highest poverty rate. Hawkins said the Dorchester effort exemplifies the type of projects they intend to keep doing in and beyond the region.

In this case, the Maryland Department of the Environment asked Moonshot to help the county’s sanitary district replace failing and aging wastewater infiltration ponds surrounded by earthen berms. These were being threatened by sea level rise and the technology they relied upon is no longer considered a best practice.

Moonshot’s consultants found that sending the wastewater to a larger system for treatment would be a better approach. They helped the utility create an intended- use plan and apply for the Maryland State Revolving Fund to pay for the additional infrastructure that was needed.

“It’s a very complicated process to get access to those funds. It’s mainly become a bigger utility game, because there are studies and workups [required] to apply for the program,” Hawkins said.

Overall, the stream of funding toward environmental justice-related causes shows no signs of abating. In late October, the EPA announced $2.3 million in spending on five projects in Virginia and $3.2 million on five projects in Maryland. The initiatives include:

  • $980,000 to combat air pollution and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by building energy upgrades in disadvantaged communities in Arlington, VA.
  • $460,000 to forge partnerships with 10 community-based organizations in the Charlottesville, VA, area to create a climate-adaption plan.
  • $370,000 to Ridges to Reefs to address air and water contamination impacts from the Chalk Point power plant in Eagle Harbor, MD. 

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