Friday, December 9, 2022

New EPA Office Intersects Civil Right and Environmental Justice

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A new national EPA office will advance both environmental justice and civil rights.

Environmental issues impact people of color and low-income communities, says the EPA. But the creation of the historic Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights aims to change that.

The formation of the new office supports President Biden’s commitment to address and correct these issues. According to the EPA, more than 200 staff will span ten regions and the EPA headquarters focused on engaging communities most at risk. The new office is the combination of the Office of Environmental Justice, External Civil Rights Compliance Office, and Conflict Prevention and Resolution Center.

“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, the first Black man to helm the agency, said in a statement.

Michael S. Regan, EPA Administrator | Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

“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,” Regan said. He made the announcement alongside civil rights leaders in Warren County, North Carolina—the site where protests happened 40 years ago sparking the environmental justice movement.

Efforts will span communities of color and low-income communities, as well as Tribal lands. The new office will manage “historic levels” of grants and technical assistance—including a $3 billion climate and environmental justice block grant program created by the Inflation Reduction Act—as well as work across EPA offices to bring environmental justice to the forefront. The agency says the office will be led by a U.S. Senate-confirmed Assistant Administrator, to be announced at a later date.

“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,” Vice President Kamala Harris said. “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.”

The office will include the creation of the first White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, and the launch of the Justice40 Initiative, which aims to provide 40 percent of benefits from federal investments relating to climate change, clean energy, and related areas, to disadvantaged communities. More than 200 policy actions are included in the agenda that will prioritize equity, civil rights, and environmental justice principles and priorities into all of the EPA’s practices, policies, and programs, the agency said.

A sign at a Black Lives Matter march in Philadelphia, 2020
A sign at a Black Lives Matter march in Philadelphia, 2020 | Courtesy Chris Henry | Unsplash

Support for the new office was far and wide.

Dr. Beverly Wright, Founder and Executive Director, Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, said the new office will effectively hold polluters legally accountable for civil rights violations.

“After generations of denial and inaction, it is a testament to the progress the environmental justice movement has made to see the Biden Administration recognize and take action on the institutional and structural racism that exists within climate policy,” she said.

“Through this new effort, funding and resources will finally mak it to the communities that need it most. Our fight for environmental justice will continue, but we are encouraged by this important step forward.”

Dr. Robert Bullard, Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University said the news is a sign of progress after decades of disproportionate impact from environmental contamination in communities of color and low-income communities. “This work to advance environmental justice goes hand in hand with the fight for civil rights,” he said.

Support from lawmakers

Senators Cory Booker (NJ) and Tammy Duckworth (IL), Co-Chairs of the Senate Environmental Justice Caucus, praised the new office.

 “For too long, our most toxic, polluting industries have been located next door to Black, Brown, Indigenous and low-income communities at the expense of their health while too many in power have looked the other way,” they said in a joint statement.

“Racial justice, civil rights and equity should be prioritized in every aspect of our nation—including in environmental justice and climate action. We’re proud to see that EPA is continuing to heed the calls of our Environmental Justice Caucus and countless EJ advocates by launching this office to help protect long-underserved communities.”

Senator Tom Carper, Chair of Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (DE) said far too many disadvantaged Americans “continue to live in communities where clean water, clean air, and a healthy environment aren’t a reality.” The senator said that a single, mission-driven office led by a Senate-confirmed Assistant Administrator is “so critical.”

“I’m confident this office will elevate EPA’s role in advancing environmental justice, especially as the agency works to implement the historic climate and equity investments in the Inflation Reduction Act,” he said.

Congressman G.K. Butterfield (NC) said the announcement marks 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.”

A can floats in a body of water,
A can floats in a body of water, courtesy Justin Wilkens | Unsplash

A 1982 Warren County, North Carolina, protest sparked the modern environmental movement after a landfill was designated for a small predominantly Black community. The landfill was going to allow soil contaminated with PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), highly carcinogenic persistent organic pollutants, that came from illegal toxic wasted dumping following the PCB ban in the U.S. in 1979.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper also praised the launch. “For too long, our underserved communities have been disproportionately impacted by climate change and unfair environmental impacts,” the Governor said. “That’s why we’re focused on moving North Carolina toward a more equitable, clean energy future for all, and this new office will help our state and country get there even sooner.”

“We cannot combat the climate crisis without confronting environmental injustice, and today’s announcement is recognition of this fact,” Congressman A. Donald McEachin, Co-Chair of House Environmental Justice Task Force (VA-04), said, calling the new office a “welcomed addition.”

“It is apparently clear that any bold action we take to address the climate crisis must be rooted in environmental justice,” said Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, Co-Chair of House Environmental Justice Task Force (WA-07). “Too many of our marginalized communities have suffered environmental injustice for far too long. President Biden and EPA Administrator Michael Regan understand this. The establishment of EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights marks the Biden Administration’s continued commitment towards ensuring that our marginalized communities aren’t left behind as we seek to leave a healthy planet for the generations that come after us.”

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