EPA Launches New Environmental Justice Office

EPA Administrator Michael Regan speaks at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, North Carolina
EPA Administrator Michael Regan speaks at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, North Carolina on April 14, 2022. MANDEL NGAN / AFP via Getty Images
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has launched a new office focused on solving environmental problems in marginalized communities. 

The agency announced the formation of the Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights on Saturday, a move it said was in keeping with President Joe Biden’s environmental priorities. 

“From day one, President Biden and EPA have been committed to delivering progress on environmental justice and civil rights and ensuring that underserved and overburdened communities are at the forefront of our work,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a statement. “With the launch of a new national program office, we are embedding environmental justice and civil rights into the DNA of EPA and ensuring that people who’ve struggled to have their concerns addressed see action to solve the problems they’ve been facing for generations.” 

Several studies have shown that low-income communities and communities of color face a higher pollution burden than wealthier, white communities, whether that’s from pesticide exposure, air pollution or climate-crisis impacts like heat waves. Unhealthy air and urban heat islands have both been mapped onto historical redlining, the practice of isolating neighborhoods from investments if Black or immigrant communities settled there. Recent examples of what happens to minority communities whose infrastructure is neglected include the water crises in Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi.

“For decades, communities of color and low-income communities have faced disproportionate impacts from environmental contamination and for decades we have been fighting to elevate their stories and deliver protections equally, for everyone,” Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University Dr. Robert Bullard said in a statement of support published by the EPA. “This work to advance environmental justice goes hand in hand with the fight for civil rights, and EPA’s efforts under this new office will deliver progress for the communities that need action now.”

The new office will have more than 200 employees and work at both the federal level and in the agency’s 10 regional offices. Its duties will include working with underserved communities to meet their needs, incorporating environmental justice concerns into the broader EPA mission, making sure all EPA-funded groups follow civil rights laws and distributing technical assistance and grants. Immediately, it will channel the $3 billion in climate and environmental justice block grants approved by the Inflation Reduction Act.

Regan announced the office’s creation in Warren County, North Carolina, where 1982 protests against a landfill gave birth to the modern environmental justice movement, according to The Hill. 

“This is an historic day – not just for Warren County, North Carolina where the environmental justice movement began, but for the millions of Americans all across this country who have been demanding and fighting tirelessly for environmental justice for decades,” North Carolina Congressman G.K. Butterfield said in the EPA announcement.

A plaque commemorating the protests that launched the U.S. environmental justice movement. Indy beetle / CCO 1.0

Biden has made environmental justice a priority since his presidential campaign, including a “Plan to Secure Environmental Justice and Equitable Economic Opportunity” in his platform with running-mate and now Vice President Kamala Harris. This included a promise to establish an Environmental and Climate Justice Division within the U.S. Department of Justice, something the administration followed through on in May, as Reuters reported. Biden has also promised that 40 percent of federal clean energy money will go towards protecting marginalized communities from air pollution. The creation of the EPA office — which will merge its Office of Environmental Justice, External Civil Rights Compliance Office and Conflict Prevention and Resolution Center — follows in this pattern. 

“President Biden and I have been clear: we must ground our work to address the climate crisis and our greatest environmental challenges in justice and equity,” Harris said in a statement reported by the EPA. “The establishment of a new office dedicated to advancing environmental justice and civil rights at EPA will ensure the lived experiences of underserved communities are central to our decision-making while supporting community-driven solutions.”

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