D.C.'s Department of Energy and Environment will use federal grant money to install three new air quality monitors around the city. They will likely look similar to this monitor, which DOEE currently operates at the National Zoo.
D.C.'s Department of Energy and Environment will use federal grant money to install three new air quality monitors around the city. They will likely look similar to this monitor, which DOEE currently operates at the National Zoo.

New air quality monitoring projects aimed at promoting environmental justice will launch in D.C., Maryland and Virginia in the coming months, thanks to grants announced by the Environmental Protection Agency on Nov. 3. 

Over 130 projects across the country received funding — more than $53 million in total — through the grants. It’s part of a broader focus on environmental justice by the Biden administration’s EPA, which announced the creation of a 200-person Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights last month. 

Across the country, people of color are 1.5 times more likely to live in areas with poor air quality, according to the American Lung Association

“The environmental injustice is a result of policy decisions to put polluting, unwanted, harmful things in these majority-Black communities and lower-income communities, and then to pretty much ignore and allow them to operate for decades,” Parisa Norouzi, executive director of Empower DC, said. 

Empower DC, a justice group dedicated to building political power among the District’s low-income residents is one of 12 groups D.C.’s Department of Energy and Environment asked for input when applying for the EPA community air monitoring grant. 

The District received $500,000, some of which will go toward three new air quality monitors, said Hannah Ashenafi, the acting associate director for DOEE’s Air Quality Division.

“Doing monitoring in these communities is something we have had on our wish list for a long time,” Ashenafi said. “We’ve been looking for funding to try to get monitors in neighborhoods that don’t currently have them.” 

Air Quality Monitoring in D.C.

Currently, the District has five monitors across the city that check common pollutants regulated by the federal Clean Air Act, such as ozone, lead, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter. Ward 7 hosts two existing monitors, one along the Anacostia Freeway and one in River Terrace. The others sit at McMillan Reservoir near Howard University, King Greenleaf Recreation Center by Nationals Park, and Takoma Recreation Center. 

To decide where to put the three new monitors, DOEE plans to create an air quality advisory board made of community representatives and technical experts. Ashenafi said she hopes to see at least one of them sited in Ward 5, where residents of majority-Black neighborhoods like Brentwood and Ivy City face disproportionate exposure to industrial polluters. 

The new air quality monitoring devices will be built into park benches and feature screens showing the real-time data that DOEE will collect over the course of the project.

But Ashenafi said the two-year initiative won’t only focus on the monitoring devices and the data they gather. Instead, storytelling and community involvement will also serve as central features. Community members will be asked to share their personal experiences with air pollution in their neighborhoods. Those stories will be recorded and added to a map of the project’s findings. 

“Oftentimes, when it comes to air quality, the experiences of people that live in communities that are overburdened with air pollution are not included,” Ashenafi said. “We tend to look at the raw data, but we know that the data that we collect can’t capture everyone’s experience.”

Partnerships Help Monitor Air Quality

The EPA’s grant application specifically encouraged those types of community partnerships, which DOEE built into the project’s plan. A spokesperson for the EPA said the federal agency received 206 applications, of which 132 were funded. 

The Maryland Department of the Environment also received a grant, which it plans to use to monitor three areas identified as having environmental justice concerns. These include the Prince George’s County town of Cheverly and the Baltimore neighborhoods of Curtis Bay and Turner Station.

Other grant recipients throughout the DMV include the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe in Virginia and the national nonprofit Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, which plans to conduct monitoring efforts in Maryland and Delaware. Each project received between $440,000 and $500,000. 

The money comes from funds allocated specifically for air quality monitoring in the 2021 American Rescue Plan and a major climate change and health care law passed in August. But environmental justice advocates have pointed out that more monitoring doesn’t always lead to cleaner air.  

“While D.C. is not known as an industrial city, the reality is that there are communities where the bulk of industry is located that have been treated as sacrifice zones,” Norouzi, with Empower DC, said. “I would just hope that the data does help to create more visibility and more understanding. But at the end of the day, we need the political will to shut down polluters.”

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