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Energized community advocates will challenge industry and regulators

Communities affected by pollution will benefit from new Biden administration funding

by Rick Mullin, special to C&EN
January 19, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 2


A neighborhood near a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
Credit: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
The derailment of a Norfolk Southern train and subsequent controlled release and burn of vinyl chloride last February affected East Palestine, Ohio, a town of about 4,700 people on the Pennsylvania border.

Grassroots organizations in communities affected by industry say they are going into 2024 with an increased sense of momentum in their efforts to hold companies and government agencies accountable.


The Joe Biden administration continues to direct funds to communities burdened by pollution.

Environmental justice groups will be energized with new staff and funding.

Opponents of a Shell plastics plant in Pennsylvania will step up efforts.

The environmental justice movement awakened in the US after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the powerful response by Black Lives Matter. Since then, legislation from the Joe Biden administration has trained a spotlight on communities near industrial sites. A notable example is the Justice40 Initiative, which aims to deliver 40% of the benefits of certain federal investments to communities disproportionately affected by pollution.

Recent events—including the start-up of a major petrochemical plant in Pennsylvania, seismic testing for a project to deposit carbon dioxide under a lake in Louisiana, and the derailment of a train containing vinyl chloride on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border—have spawned new community groups that quickly got up to speed and energized regional organizations already in place. All will be stepping up activity in 2024.

The Biden administration has continued to fund programs for communities burdened by pollution, including an initiative announced in November that will direct $2 billion to community projects. The Environmental and Climate Justice Community Change Grants program will be funded by the administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, which in 2022 earmarked $60 billion for environmental justice programs.

“When you are backed into a corner, you figure out what you need to do to fight back.”
Hilary Flint, vice president, Unity Council, and communications director, Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community

This year will find community groups, regional organizations, and universities advancing programs intended to help residents challenge industry, sometimes with new personnel and resources.

The Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community (BCMAC) launched its Eyes on Shell initiative in 2022 as Shell prepared to begin production at its polymer plant in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. Then last fall, it hired an executive director and a communications director. The two positions are funded by the Breathe Collaborative, an initiative of multiple community groups in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Hilary Starcher O’Toole, the new executive director, says the group will heighten its awareness campaign in 2024. “The driving force will be allowing the public to see what’s going on.” She says there is a noticeable increase in community interest about the Shell plant, which has racked up a slew of violations since starting up in November 2022.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has convened an advisory board that is expected early this year to determine the allocation of $5 million that Shell must pay to fund community projects in Beaver County as part of a settlement for air quality violations during the plant’s commissioning.

In Ohio, the grassroots organization the Unity Council sprang to life last year shortly after the rail disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, which is on the border of Beaver County. Hilary Flint, the communications director for BCMAC, is also vice president of the Unity Council.

$2 billion

Funding for the Environmental and Climate Justice Community Change Grants program

Source: US Environmental Protection Agency.

Flint says the new group is pressuring government agencies to provide better information on air quality, including indoor air quality, to back up their determination that the area is safe. “People are being gaslit,” Flint says. “When you are backed into a corner, you figure out what you need to do to fight back.”

Robert D. Bullard, director of the Robert D. Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice at Texas Southern University, says community organizers will continue monitoring the distribution of funding from the government and gear up for new industrial challenges, notably liquid natural gas terminals planned for the Gulf Coast. And 2024 will present a new round of political challenges.


“Our organizations now are speaking up and showing up,” Bullard says. “But there are forces out there trying to put them back in the bottle, conservative forces that want to attack environmental justice as it relates to the federal government in a way to make it seem like affirmative action. And we know what the Supreme Court has done to affirmative action.”

He and others acknowledge that the general election later this year could bring setbacks for communities affected by industry. But they are optimistic about advancing community health and safety issues across party lines in 2024.


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