WASHINGTON – The Environmental Protection Agency will establish a new national office of environmental justice, the Biden administration’s latest effort to rectify the disproportionate harm caused by pollution and climate change in communities of color and in low-income cities, towns and counties.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan, the first Black man to run the agency, announced the creation of the office alongside environmental justice and civil rights leaders on Saturday in Warren County, North Carolina, the site of a toxic dump where protesters were arrested 40 years ago, giving rise to the environmental justice movement.
“From day one, the president and EPA have been committed to not just making progress on environmental justice and civil rights, but to ensure that environmental justice and civil rights are at the center of everything we do, that we enshrine it in a way that outlasts any of us,” Regan said in a telephone interview on Friday.
Regan said he intended to ensure that all new air, water and chemical safety regulations, many of which affect the profits of electric utilities as well as automakers and other major manufacturers, would now be inscribed with provisions that try to mitigate the impact of environmental damage to poor and minority communities. That could include stricter pollution controls.
“When you look at the way EPA does this risk analysis to determine the level of stringency for protecting communities, we will take into account communities and how they have been impacted over time,” said Regan, who has crisscrossed the country, visiting communities that bear a disproportionate amount of air and water pollution. “And how those regulations in the past may not have been as protective of some communities, as we are positioned to do moving forward.”
Dollie Burwell, who was arrested at the Warren County dump in 1982 and is sometimes called the mother of environmental justice, said she saw the creation of the office “as another milestone to those of us who made sacrifices and went to jail, that somebody’s listening.”
The new national office will combine three smaller midlevel offices of environmental justice, civil rights and conflict prevention and resolution into one high-level office with a Senate-confirmed assistant administrator who reports directly to Regan.
It will be staffed by 200 people, in Washington and across the agency’s 10 regional offices – up from 55 people who today carry out the agency’s environmental justice and civil rights work. That will put the expanded environmental justice office on equal footing with the EPA’s national offices of air, water and chemical pollution, which together make up the agency’s central mission of reducing pollution and protecting public health.
“I’m excited to see the merging of the offices of environmental justice and civil rights,” Burwell said. She said that she saw the structural change at the EPA as a single step among many that the administration must still take in order to achieve President Joe Biden’s environmental justice promises. “As a person who attended segregated schools, I expect incremental achievements,” she said.
The EPA is working now on new rules to reduce pollution from auto tailpipes, factory and power plant smokestacks, dumping into waterways and leaks from oil and gas wells. All could be shaped by the considerations of environmental justice, Regan said.
With an annual operating budget of $100 million, the new office will oversee the implementation of a $3 billion climate and environmental justice block grant program that was created after passage last month of the nation’s first major climate law. The new law also includes a broader $60 billion investment in environmental justice.
Biden, who prevailed in the 2020 Democratic primaries with help from Black voters, is the first president to elevate environmental justice, the idea that all people have an equal right to protection from environmental and health hazards. He established a 25-member White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, the first of its kind, and called on all federal agencies to ensure disadvantaged communities receive 40% of the benefits from federal investment in clean air and water, flood prevention, cleanup of Superfund sites, renewable energy and other improvements. In May, the Justice Department announced the creation of an office of environmental justice, charged with investigating and prosecuting violations of environmental laws.
Not all environmental justice activists have given Biden high marks. Wes Gobar, a leader with the Movement for Black Lives, criticized a deal struck last month by Democratic leaders with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. Under that arrangement, Manchin supplied the pivotal vote to pass the climate legislation in exchange for a promise that the Senate would pass a separate bill this month to make it easier for oil and gas pipelines to win federal permits. It remains unclear if the permitting bill will pass.
“This deal exchanges the health of Black lives across the country in exchange for fossil fuel profits,” Gobar said. “This was an unacceptable trade-off. Our movement is pushing Congress, particularly the Congressional Black Caucus, to reject this choice.”
“We’ve seen a lot of structural changes on environmental justice in the Biden, Obama and Clinton administrations, but we need to see the results,” Gobar said. “And it won’t make up for this side deal – for cutting the federal government’s ability to protect Black communities.”
Republicans have also pushed back against the administration’s efforts to elevate environmental justice.
At a House hearing this year on legislation intended to codify many environmental justice initiatives, called the Environmental Justice For All Act, Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana, the ranking Republican on the House Select Committee on Climate Crisis, said, “It’s just a dangerous trajectory for us to continue to force this conspiracy of racism on all of these decisions.”
“It’s not going to yield results,” he added. “Let’s work on things that will actually solve problems for communities of color, for economically distressed communities and others.”
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