The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) marks the most sweeping air quality and environmental justice legislation that the United States has passed since The Clean Air Act of 1970. The legislation addresses a range of issues that affect disadvantaged communities across the country and allocates over $10B to fight for environmental justice as it relates to air pollution through programs like the recently announced Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving (EJCPS) Cooperative Agreement Program

Air pollution from fossil fuels is responsible for the premature death of up to 350,000 people across the United States every year. The investment this legislation makes in strengthening our air quality monitoring systems and reducing air pollution around ports and schools, amongst other sites, can significantly improve the lives of millions of Americans. However, there are three headwinds facing the successful implementation of this legislation:

  1. The burden and complexity of setting up and managing air quality projects is placed on already resource-strapped community groups, 
  2. Local, state and federal agencies that are responsible for air quality management lack a well-defined process to accept or reject air quality data from third-party air quality monitoring networks, and 
  3. The lack of input, funding, and incentives to local and state regulators to best enable them to enforce the findings in their communities. 

If we can address these issues, we give the IRA’s environmental justice funding a considerably higher chance of being successful at combating air pollution issues in underserved communities. 

The relationship between AB 617 and the IRA

Since 2014 Clarity has installed air quality monitoring networks in over 70 countries. One of the most impactful and rewarding, but probably one of the most complex, projects we worked on was in partnership with Brightline Defense on a 20+ sensor network that’s given tenants in downtown San Francisco real-time access to air quality data. This network was financed using California’s Assembly Bill (AB) 617 funding, otherwise known as the Community Air Protection Program. To receive funding for an air quality sensor network as a part of the AB 617 program a community needs to complete a substantial application, and go through a highly technical and complicated vetting process. 

According to Eddie Ahn, Executive Director of Brightline Defense and President, SF Commission of the Environment

“The fact that the Community Air Protection Program, otherwise known as AB 617, exists in California is wonderful. And the fact that congress recently passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which grants similar funding to help disadvantaged communities across the country combat air pollution, is fantastic. However, applying for funding associated with government programs is often a complex and technical process, and as such, we hope that local, state, and federal leaders find ways to support communities in their funding requests, which will help to maximize the efficacy of these air quality sensor networks.”

Because AB 617 served as inspiration for the environmental justice legislation tied to air pollution in the newly signed IRA, we should learn from AB 617 and try to create a better system for appropriating funding to community-led organizations.

Community groups need more support to apply for air quality funding

The first core issue of the new IRA funding is that even when a community organization exists and is highly organized, the time and resources needed to submit a case to receive the IRA’s air quality / environmental justice funding is very substantial, and some of the organizations that are best suited to receive funding for these projects simply don't pursue the application process. The resources required to apply for this funding, and the resources required for reporting are quite substantial, and in many cases an organization decides that its resources are better spent elsewhere. If they are able to complete the application process and receive funding, there is the huge challenge and cost of running the program from a technical standpoint that’s not properly addressed by the IRA’s funding mechanism. 

Given our familiarity with AB 617, and other community-led projects across the country, we understand that there is one key change that can be made in terms of how communities are supported that can have a positive impact on outcomes. Since the application process to receive funding for air quality sensors as a part of the IRA’s environmental justice legislation is fairly complex, we recommend the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should provide community-led organizations with an initial pre-application level of funding for capacity building so that community-led organizations can dedicate time and resources towards completing a satisfactory application for air quality sensor network funding.

Republican congressmen have made the process of applying for EPA funded Environmental Justice projects much harder by using The Committee of Oversight and Accountability to burden the EPA’s staff with frivolous paperwork because they feel that the “mechanisms in these programs are lacking, and adequate metrics for applicants must be imposed to avoid funneling money into vague projects that will enable a $100 million slush fund for far-left organizations.” And as such, they’ve requested that the EPA provide the committee with the following documents with the intent of throwing a wrench into the funding process:

  1. All documents submitted by EJCPS Cooperative Agreement Program case study grantees to the EPA; 
  2. All documents submitted by EJG2G Cooperative Agreement Program case study grantees to the EPA; 
  3. All documents and communications between or among EPA staff containing the term “environmental justice” or the initials “EJ”; 
  4. All documents and communications referring or relating to EJ grants between any individual or individuals within the EPA and any third party, including but not limited to any environmental advocacy groups; 
  5. All documents and communications regarding elements of the FY22 and FY23 EPA budget; and 
  6. All documents and communications between or among EPA staff and the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, referring or relating to EJ grants.

These requests will undoubtedly slow down the EPA’s ability to work with communities to fund projects, and will lead to less communities applying for funding, given the added burden. The actions by the committee will stall the fight for environmental justice in communities plagued by poor air quality. 

Define a process to review and use third-party air quality data

The second core issue why the environmental justice goals outlined in the IRA might fall short is because the only air quality data officially recognized by the EPA for regulatory and punitive purposes comes from expensive, bulky equipment that comply with the Federal Reference Methods (FRM) and Federal Equivalent Methods (FEMs). However, this national regulatory monitoring network is sparse and in need of modernization (as highlighted by a 2020 report from the US Government Accountability Office). For example, ​​the city and county of San Francisco, with all of its geographic and socioeconomic stratification, has only one federally-recognized air quality monitoring station. This is problematic, as these sparsely placed reference monitors rarely measure air pollution in the most disadvantaged communities. 

The IRA aims to solve this issue by funding community organizations so that they can work with private companies, such as Clarity, to build more granular air quality networks directly in their neighborhoods. 

However, there’s a big issue that can potentially be problematic. There is no process in place that establishes how the EPA or state air quality regulators either accept or reject the data collected from a third-party air quality sensor network. Without a defined process that’s agreed upon by federal, state and local level regulators, even after all of the funding has been exhausted, we may not see the data produced recognized as valid. 

If the data are not recognized as reliable it is much less likely that action will be taken to reduce air pollution, which means it will be harder to justify more funding for these types of programs in the future. 

As such, we propose that the EPA work with state and local officials to define a process that requires state and local agencies to decide how they will review and either accept or reject the data produced by the lower-cost, higher-density, non-regulatory air quality sensor networks being used in these projects — and hopefully leverage IRA-funded monitoring as another tool in their toolbox to supplement sparse regulatory air monitoring networks.

Fund and support clean air actions regulators and policymakers can take based on insights from these new data

Lastly, the IRA funding should significantly increase the amount of data we have about air pollution, which in itself is great. However, the IRA funding is not currently structured to provide support to state and local regulators to integrate the significant increase in air quality findings into their work. So even if communities are armed with great data, if their state and local regulators aren’t funded and properly incentivized to take action, the findings in the data may linger without any action being taken to address air quality concerns in these communities. As such, we propose that the EPA create a space for state and local regulators to be included in the environmental justice conversation, and for their feedback to be taken into consideration so we can understand what they need to be able to regulate air quality in their regions, be it funding, incentivization, or something else entirely. 

The IRA provides a huge boon for environmental justice concerns voiced by disadvantaged communities as they relate to air pollution. However, three core issues may significantly dampen the effectiveness of IRA air quality funding. The good news is that we’re early in the implementation phase of the IRA, and many of these issues can still be addressed.