Maryland made a historic commitment for the fiscal year that began July 1: At least 40% of spending on climate change and green infrastructure — including renewable energy, public transportation, affordable housing, and environmental cleanup — needs to go to the 16% of communities who need it the most.
That’s the opposite of how things often work. I grew up in Curtis Bay, a neighborhood in South Baltimore known for environmental injustice. Curtis Bay is home to uncovered, four-story piles of coal, the nation’s largest medical waste incinerator, a chemical plant and a petroleum processing facility. The neighborhood is also four miles south of Baltimore’s largest polluter, the Wheelabrator trash incinerator. The federal Environmental Protection Agency ranks Curtis Bay in the 95th percentile for hazardous waste proximity.
My brother struggled with severe asthma; I had chronic bronchitis, which improved when I moved out of Curtis Bay — but got worse when I began working in the neighborhood again. A 2017 report from the Baltimore Health Department showed the death rate from chronic respiratory disease in Curtis Bay and two surrounding neighborhoods to be more than double the average for the city; Baltimore itself has asthma rates 50% higher than the average for the country.
Curtis Bay is among the 16% of Maryland communities identified in the 2022-2023 state budget as “overburdened,” based on an analysis by the Center for Community Engagement, Environmental Justice and Health at the University of Maryland. Historically, Curtis Bay and other overburdened communities, including Brandywine in Prince George’s County and Lothian in Anne Arundel County, have received too much of the infrastructure that poisons you, and not enough of the infrastructure that can allow you to have a job and be healthy at the same time.
By incorporating this commitment in its budget, Maryland has become one of the first states in the nation to codify the “Justice 40″ principle that President Biden ran on but has struggled to implement: the idea that at least 40% of green infrastructure spending should go to disadvantaged communities.
The federal Justice 40 effort has faced two key challenges. First, much of the money in, say, the new federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, goes to states and is spent at their discretion. Second, the White House has struggled to arrive at a definition of disadvantaged communities. Maryland’s budget addresses both of those challenges: by applying Justice 40 at the state level and by embracing a concrete definition of overburdened communities for the coming year.
The Justice 40 principle is an acknowledgment that our climate predicament is a justice crisis. Both the causes of climate change (fossil fuel extraction and combustion, deforestation, pollution) and the consequences of climate change (harms caused by heat waves, floods, fires, storms, droughts) are concentrated in communities with less wealth and less power, and communities that face discrimination. African Americans breathe one and a half times the particulate air pollution as the national average, for example, and they are 40% more likely to live in places projected to experience the highest increases in mortality due to extreme temperatures.
To tackle climate change, we need to confront injustice. Among other things, that means giving overburdened communities a leadership role in the urgent transitions we need to make.
The Curtis Bay community is eager to do their part. The Community of Curtis Bay Association, of which I am a member, is proposing to build a composting facility and zero waste recovery park in the community, which would create fertile soil, reduce waste sent to the nearby trash incinerator and landfill, and thereby curtail both local pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The association is proposing a facility that is community-owned and community-run, and one that creates dignified work for local residents.
Mayor Scott endorsed the proposal in public remarks. The proposed facility will eventually become self-sustaining, but requires start-up capital. This is exactly the kind of thing Maryland should be supporting under its new Justice 40 requirement.
Across the state, communities like Curtis Bay have often been forced to spend time fighting harmful projects. This new budgetary commitment is a chance for them to identify and pursue what they’re saying yes to.
The Mid-Atlantic Justice Coalition advocated for a state-level Justice 40 framework over the last year (first through legislation, and eventually as a budget provision). Now that it’s been adopted, our members are ready to get to work to bring it to life. We hope the state government is too.
Shashawnda Campbell (email@example.com) is environmental justice coordinator with the South Baltimore Community Land Trust. Contributing to this op-ed is Vivek Maru, co-founder and CEO of Namati. Both are members of the Mid-Atlantic Economic and Environmental Justice Coalition.