February 28, 2024

Bella Romero Academy, a K-8 school, sits 1,200ft from a fracking site in Greeley, Colorado.

Air on the playground is often thick with benzene – a chemical that can cause dizziness and headaches in the short term, and blood illnesses like leukemia with long-term exposure. In 2019, independent researchers found that benzene spiked above healthy levels 113 times there in a seven-month period.

Local advocates wanted to monitor the air quality outside the school to help administrators figure out the safest times to let the kids play outside. “Most of these sites are completely unmonitored,” said Micah Parkin, the executive director of the non-profit 350 Colorado.

She applied for an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grant aimed at helping communities monitor their own air quality and was thrilled when her organization was selected to receive roughly $500,000.

But Parkin and her colleagues quickly ran into hurdles. The EPA wanted her team to hold a competitive bidding process to find a local partner, even though 350 Colorado had already identified one: the air-quality monitoring firm Boulder Air. They also demanded financial information that Parkin said would require 350 Colorado to overhaul its accounting and reporting procedures. These processes required time and resources that 350 Colorado, with an annual budget of under $1m, simply didn’t have.

In late 2023, after months of conference calls and untold amounts of paperwork, Parkin and her board made the difficult decision to turn down the money. “I kept saying: ‘Let’s just get this done – come on, people.’” she recalled. “But it became clear to me that there was no end in sight.”

The Biden administration has made unprecedented commitments to environmental justice, with tens of millions in funding meant to tackle problems like air pollution and unsafe drinking water that disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color. Grants like the one Parkin applied for are part of an effort to direct 40% of the funds from certain federal investments to “disadvantaged communities”. (At Bella Romero, 90% of the mostly Hispanic student body qualifies for school lunch assistance.)

These efforts have drawn in dozens of first-time EPA grantees, like Colorado 350, but some of those groups say the grants come with too many conditions to make them truly accessible.

“I think we’re in a period of growing pains,” said Jay Benforado, a retired EPA official. “To provide community organizations and small NGOs federal grants requires a change in supporting infrastructure.”

Near Denver, the community organization Cultivando also turned down a half-million dollar grant to monitor pollution in a largely Hispanic community near a petroleum refinery. The group had previously found high levels of radioactive particles and PM2.5, which is associated with increased incidence of respiratory problems, among other problems.

Cultivando had planned to hire Boulder Air, the same air-quality consulting firm that Colorado 350 intended to work with. But like Colorado 350, Cultivando wasn’t equipped to carry out the competitive bidding process required before they sign on Boulder Air, executive director Olga Gonzalez said.

“I was actually shocked that they didn’t know more” about how community-based organizations operate, she said. “The EPA needs to really humble itself and think about what it means to partner with community-led efforts.”

While other small organizations found ways to meet the requirements, they can understand why some of their peers have given up.

“The [EPA has] released an insane amount of money without updating the process by which that money is distributed,” said Christian Poulsen, a policy analyst for the Seattle-based Duwamish River community coalition. Poulsen said his organization, which is slightly smaller than Colorado 350, relied on previous experience with federal grants to successfully navigate this one, but said the process is taxing nonetheless. “So most community-based organizations are ill-positioned to capture that money and that benefit for our communities,” he said.

Most community groups have accepted funding. Of 132 organizations who were awarded grants to measure air quality, only five, including Colorado 350 and Cultivando, have withdrawn from the program. In its response to the Guardian, the EPA’s press secretary, Remmington Belford, said the agency had offered “extensive support” to both groups, and said it would continue to work with both organizations in the future on potential funding opportunities.

The EPA, together with the Department of Energy, is funding 16 environmental justice technical assistance centers throughout the country which, among other things, will help small non-profits comply with federal grant requirements. In the meantime, Belford said, it’s also trying to screen grant applicants more carefully, so it can “really probe applicant readiness to take on the responsibilities involved in managing larger federal awards”.

Benforado, the retired EPA innovation officer, said he believes the attrition rate with this program has likely been higher than normal, because the federal government has deliberately tried to partner with underserved communities that have little or no experience receiving federal grants. He and two other ex-officials are working with the Environmental Protection Network to host a free, monthly webinar where they offer advice on the EPA grant process. He said 30 to 40 people tune in each month.

For organizations that have been able to meet EPA requirements, the grants have been a boon to localized research. We Act, an environmental justice organization based in Harlem, is using funds to enlist residents to place small air sensors on their fire escapes and in their homes. They’re collecting baseline data on air pollution in the Upper Manhattan neighborhood before congestion pricing goes into effect below 60th street this spring. (We Act is concerned the move will push drivers – and pollution – into Harlem.)

“Oftentimes we don’t get the opportunity to craft our own data to make some of the cases that we need to make,” said Manuel Salgado, a research analyst at We Act. “This gives us a way to do that.” He said data from small air sensors will help the organization advocate for policies to alleviate pollution in Harlem, like bringing congestion pricing uptown and restricting new parking facilities.

In Colorado, Parkin said her organization remains committed to Bella Romero Academy. Another local institution may take over air-quality monitoring there – and 350 Colorado will support that project if it comes to fruition, she said.

Gonzalez said she hopes other small organizations like hers will have better success working with the EPA in the future. “Maybe we had to be the guinea pig for them to do better on the next round,” she said, “if there is a next round.”

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