150+ Organizations Call Out USDA for Exacerbating Environmental Injustice in Energy Grant Program

"USDA’s new grant approval process will concentrate even more pollution in communities already overburdened with the fallout from factory farming"

Published Jun 13, 2023

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Food System

"USDA’s new grant approval process will concentrate even more pollution in communities already overburdened with the fallout from factory farming"

"USDA’s new grant approval process will concentrate even more pollution in communities already overburdened with the fallout from factory farming"

WASHINGTON – Today, 155 environmental justice, food and farm, and climate organizations voiced opposition to changes the U.S. Department of Agriculture made to the Rural Energy for America Program that will exacerbate environmental injustice in many rural communities. In a letter to Secretary Tom Vilsack, the groups said that these changes – made without a public notice and comment period – would advantage dirty sources of energy: manure biogas and wood biomass facilities. USDA’s new scoring criteria would systematically locate these facilities in communities already overburdened by pollution.  

The letter calls on USDA to “develop new scoring criteria with input from impacted communities and conduct a new NEPA analysis before soliciting applications for the next application window to ensure the substantial investment into REAP from the Inflation Reduction Act effectively mitigates climate change and centers environmental justice.”  

The Rural Energy for America Program provides grants and loans to agricultural producers and small businesses for renewable energy projects. Historically, most of the funded projects have been beneficial wind and solar projects and energy efficiency upgrades, but the program has also funded manure biogas and wood biomass projects that harm communities and are counterproductive to climate mitigation.  

As the letter states, “methane digesters do nothing to limit [harmful air pollutants] (and in fact, can increase ammonia emissions), while incentivizing operations to expand in size in order to generate more manure and profit from producing biogas.” Wood biomass energy “emits far more CO2 and other pollutants per unit of energy generated than fossil fuels.”  

REAP is USDA’s trial program for the Justice40 initiative, which is meant to ensure 40% of federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities. However, as the letter outlines, USDA’s changes to REAP represent a “complete bastardization of Justice40 and the core principles of environmental justice.”  

“USDA’s new grant approval process will concentrate even more pollution in communities already overburdened with the fallout from factory farming,” said Food & Water Watch Attorney Tyler Lobdell. “By favoring factory farm gas projects located in underserved communities, the Biden administration will further entrench and exacerbate existing environmental and public health harms while perversely incentivizing new pollution from biogas production, transport, and use. Environmental justice communities need less exposure to polluting industries, not false solutions that make pollution profitable.” 

“USDA is siding with agribusiness at the expense of frontline communities,” said Sherri White-Williamson of the Environmental Justice Community Action Network. “Funding methane digesters, new pipeline infrastructure, and wood biomass production will increase pollution in overburdened, under-resources communities that Justice40 is intended to serve. Prioritizing big business demands is a slap in the face to impacted communities.” 

“We urge USDA to revisit the impact of these changes to Rural Energy for America Program on underserved farmers and communities.” said Lorette Picciano, executive director of the Rural Coalition. “In particular, the 15–point advantage for projects in disadvantaged and distressed communities with no similar advantage for underserved farmers may achieve the opposite of what the Justice40 Initiative intends.  More money into agribusiness-backed manure biogas and wood biomass projects may make the playing field for family farmers – and especially producers of color – more unfair.”  

“North Carolina is second in the country in hog production,” said Rania Masri, Co-Director of Organizing and Policy for the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. “In Duplin and Sampson counties, hogs outnumber people by 30-to-1. Billions of gallons of hog feces and urine are flushed into open-air pits and then sprayed onto nearby fields and onto people’s homes — polluting the air and water, and causing the families that live near the CAFOs to have higher rates of anemia, kidney disease, and infant mortality!  We need protection, and not financial incentives, in the form of taxpayer funds, to these polluting industries.  Rather than work to stop these horrendous levels of pollution, the USDA’s financial support for manure biogas will harm our communities already overburdened with pollution.” 

“USDA is betraying President Biden’s commitment to environmental justice with its changes to the Rural Energy for America Program,” said Chloë Waterman, senior program manager for Friends of the Earth. “Now, a white CAFO operator applying to produce factory farm methane gas and build new pipelines in a majority Black community will receive ‘environmental justice’ points because the community they are in is ‘disadvantaged.’ This backward approach to Justice40 will put more harmful projects in low-income and communities of color and hasten the climate crisis.”  

“REAP is an important program for farmers who want to invest in on-farm solar and wind, real renewable energy produced without the polluting waste that comes with factory farm gas,” said Ben Lilliston, director of climate strategies at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “REAP dollars going to expensive factory farm gas projects means that more farmers interested in on-farm solar or improved energy efficiency will be closed out of the program, setting back climate action.”

“USDA continues to embrace the biomass industry, at the expense of communities, forests, and the climate,” said Laura Haight, US Policy Director at Partnership for Policy Integrity. “Wood pellet mills and biomass combustion facilities emit smoke, dust, and hazardous air pollutants and predominantly end up in low-income communities and communities of color. These are exactly the types of facilities that the Justice40 report states will not benefit a community. Contrary to the promises of the Biden Administration, USDA’s changes to the REAP program will only accelerate environmental injustice.” 

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