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Biden administration forms new EPA office for environmental justice and civil rights

The EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights, funded thanks to the Biden-backed Inflation Reduction Act, has already earned praise from climate advocates.

By Oliver Willis - September 26, 2022
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EPA Administrator Michael Regan stands near the Marathon Petroleum Refinery as he conducts a television interview in Reserve, Louisiana, on Nov. 16, 2021.
FILE - EPA Administrator Michael Regan stands near the Marathon Petroleum Refinery as he conducts a television interview, while touring neighborhoods that abut the refinery, in Reserve, La., Nov. 16, 2021. Regan announced the creation of a new office at EPA focused on environmental justice. "We are embedding environmental justice and civil rights into the DNA of EPA," Regan said.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is forming a Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights, the Biden administration announced on Saturday.

The new inter-agency office, which consolidates three already-existing programs within the agency, will be tasked with adding civil rights, environmental justice principles, and equity into policy implemented by the entire agency. The office will have at least 200 dedicated staff members working across ten regions in the United States and stationed at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“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,” Vice President Kamala Harris said in the EPA’s statement.

The Office has been tasked with overseeing the distribution of $3 billion in block grants for civil rights and environmental leaders that were authorized by the Inflation Reduction Act, which became law when it was signed by President Joe Biden on Aug. 16. The law earmarked $60 billion in total toward investments in environmental justice.

The Inflation Reduction Act was passed with only Democratic votes in the House and Senate, with all Republicans voting against it. Vice President Harris cast the tiebreaking vote in the Senate that ensured its passage.

EPA administrator Michael Regan, who is the first Black man to lead the agency, made the announcement during a speech at a ceremony in Warrenton, North Carolina. The ceremony marked the 40th anniversary of protests held there in 1982 against plans for a landfill that was slated to store carcinogen-laced soil, which has been described as the beginnings of the modern environmental justice movement.

Dollie Burwell, one of the leaders of the 1982 protest, also spoke at the event. “This announcement is even more affirmation that the work was not in vain,” Burwell said.

The office’s creation has already earned praise from several environmental justice organizations who advocate for environmental causes.

“This new office is a result of decades of work by environmental justice, civil rights, and environmental advocates, and today, we celebrate their efforts while acknowledging how far we have to go to achieve true justice,” Leslie Fields, the Sierra Club’s national director of policy, advocacy and legal, said in a statement.

The Environmental Defense Fund described the office as a “monumental move.” Margot Brown, the organization’s vice president of justice and equity, stated, “With this new department, EPA is filling key gaps and taking a major stride in supporting and protecting every community, especially the communities to which the environmental movement is indebted.”

Earthjustice said it applauded the EPA and Reagan for the announcement, describing it as “a big step to #ActOnClimate in our most vulnerable communities.”

In a tweet, the Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions described the development as “huge” and “an essential step” in addressing how climate change affects communities that are at risk.

Sine Joe Biden took office as president, his administration has taken several steps in support of environmental justice. On January 27, 2021, in his first week in office, Biden signed an executive order aligned with the “Justice 40 Initiative,” which calls for taking 40% of benefits from federal investments in clean energy and efforts to fight climate change, and designating it for historically disadvantaged communities.

In April 2022, the Biden administration restored key portions of the National Environmental Policy Act that had been removed under former President Donald Trump’s administration. The policy requires that the climate impact of major construction projects must be considered, and that localities affected by that impact have input into the decision-making process.

Similarly, after making a “Journey to Justice” tour of cities with large minority populations, Regan in January announced renewed inspections of facilities suspected of producing pollutants, launched an air pollution monitoring project, and cited the city of Jackson, Mississippi (where 82% of the residents are Black) for failing to repair water equipment.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.


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