EPA awards UArizona $10M for new environmental justice center

a man leaning over a small stream of water on the Navajo Nation

A $10 million grant from the EPA will allow researchers to advance environmental justice, which is defined as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.

Kris Hanning/University of Arizona Health Sciences

The Environmental Protection Agency awarded $10 million to the University of Arizona to fund the Western Environmental Science Technical Assistance Center for Environmental Justice, or WEST EJ Center, for five years.

The EPA's promise of clean air, land and water has not reached many historically marginalized communities due to a complex interaction of physical, social and economic factors. Led by principal investigator Paloma Beamer, professor in the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at UArizona Health Sciences, the WEST EJ Center brings together a diverse coalition with longstanding relationships and extensive expertise working with communities to overcome these barriers.

"Our public health and environmental researchers here at the University of Arizona are among the best in the country, and I'm proud to see their expertise and experience recognized in this Environmental Justice Center grant from the EPA," said UArizona President Robert C. Robbins. "Dr. Paloma Beamer has shown exceptional leadership in environmental justice, and this new funding, combined with our existing relationships and knowledge, is going to enable us to work with communities to build a more equitable world."

Beamer's team of public health researchers and providers will collaborate with regional community organizations to support and implement environmental and energy justice projects in EPA Region 9, which includes Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and the U.S. Pacific Islands.

The WEST EJ Center is one of 17 Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers selected as part of a new program launched by the EPA in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy. The centers will help underserved and overburdened communities across the country access funds from President Joe Biden's Investing in America agenda, including historic investments to advance environmental justice.

The WEST EJ Center will help communities achieve environmental and energy justice by serving as a one-stop shop for hands-on technical assistance, multifaceted training, and other eligible forms of assistance, resources and support.

The center will provide assistance and training to effectively identify, apply for and manage grants and other funding opportunities; increase community involvement in environmental and energy decision-making through training in advocacy, environmental science, climate change, public health, energy infrastructure and student internship programs; and provide access to environmental and energy expertise that can assist with analysis, study design, protocol development and project management.

"Our three-thrust strategy builds on the environmental justice experience we have within our core team and the expertise that we have in the College of Public Health and around the university," Beamer said. "In everything we do, we use a community-engaged approach so that the people who live and work in a particular area implement the projects and become local advocates and educators for the environmental justice work."

The WEST EJ Center will follow a hub-and-spoke model, with a central hub composed of several units at UArizona, including the Indigenous Resilience Center in the Arizona Institute for Resilience, the Participatory Evaluation Institute at the Arizona Prevention Research Center, the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center and the Western Region Public Health Training Center. The spokes represent a coalition with five partners that have deep community-based networks and knowledge about environmental and energy justice needs across EPA's Region 9. The partner organizations and institutions include the Sonoran Environmental Research Institute, an Arizona nonprofit; the Public Health Institute, a California nonprofit; the University of Southern California; the Larson Institute for Health Impact and Equity at the University of Nevada, Reno; and the Hawaii Public Health Institute, a nonprofit in Hawaii.

"The right to a safe and sustainable environment for all is unfortunately not equally accessible to all, and many people live with polluted air and water, unsafe homes and food insecurity," said Elizabeth "Betsy" Cantwell, UArizona senior vice president for research and innovation. "This grant will help us meet people where they are in terms of need, and drive solution-focused action and resources that will stay embedded in our communities to increase the likelihood of long-term change. This falls directly in line with UArizona's land grant mission to improve the lives of people in our state and region through research-based solutions and educational resources."

The WEST EJ Center at the UArizona builds on decades of environmental justice experience and project implementation conducted by public health faculty and university colleagues in the Southwest. Together, they work toward environmental and energy justice with the goal of enabling the meaningful involvement of all people in developing and implementing environmental laws, regulations and policies in their own communities.

"I am so pleased to learn about this award for an Environmental Justice Center from the EPA, and so proud of Dr. Beamer and her team," said Dr. Iman Hakim, dean of the UArizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. "We have been working with rural communities, tribal communities and border communities around Arizona on environmental challenges for many years, and this new funding builds capacity to bring resources and programs that will grow environmental equity for all."

In addition to Beamer, the WEST EJ Center team includes Karletta Chief, director of the Indigenous Resilience Center and a professor and specialist in the Department of Environmental Science at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; and from the Zuckerman College of Public Health, Mona Arora, assistant research professor; Chris Lim, assistant professor; Maia Ingram, program director for community-based evaluation projects; and Kelly Reynolds, professor and chair of the Department of Community, Environment and Policy.

A version of this article originally appeared on the UArizona Health Sciences website.

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