EPA Creates National Office for Environmental Justice and Civil Rights

It will distribute $3 billion in climate and environmental justice grants to underserved communities

The Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) headquarters in Washington, D.C, on June 29, 2022. The EPA announced the launch of an office for advancing environmental justice and civil rights on Saturday.  Stefani Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will create a national office of environmental justice in a bid to address the disproportionate burden of climate change and toxic pollution on low-income areas and communities of color, writes the New York TimesCoral Davenport.

The new office, which combines three existing programs at the agency, will have more than 200 staff members across 10 regions and EPA headquarters, according to a statement. The move will nearly quadruple the number of people working on environmental justice and civil rights at the EPA, which is currently 55, according to the Times.

The new office will oversee a $3 billion climate and environmental justice grant program aimed at underserved communities, writes Hannah Schoenbaum of the Associated Press (AP). The program was created as part of a sweeping climate law passed last month.

EPA administrator Michael Regan, the first Black man to lead the agency, announced the new office on Saturday, from Warren County, North Carolina. There, a group of Black women organized protests in 1982 against the state’s decision to dump 22 acres-worth of contaminated soil in the area, writes the Washington Post’s Brady Dennis.

Though North Carolina still dumped the toxins, the Warren County protests catalyzed the environmental justice movement, which seeks to address the fact that people of color are disproportionately affected by environmental hazards.

In the 20th century, discriminatory policies known as “redlining” kept minority, low-income residents in neighborhoods where “heavy industry and other sources of pollution were allowed to cluster, exposing residents to layer upon layer of health risks, many of which remain,” writes the Post.

Government officials have built hazardous waste facilities in these communities and neglected to look after their critical infrastructure, sparking crises like the lead-poisoned water in Flint, Michigan, per the AP. A 2017 study by the Clean Air Task Force found that Black Americans are nearly four times as likely as white Americans to die from exposure to pollutants, reports the AP. The new program is meant to increase investment in these areas.

“In the past, many of our communities have had to compete for very small grants because EPA’s pot of money was extremely small,” Regan tells the AP. “We’re going from tens of thousands of dollars to developing and designing a program that will distribute billions. But we’re also going to be sure that this money goes to those who need it the most and those who’ve never had a seat at the table.”

The EPA’s first environmental justice office was established in the early 1990s, per the Post. Mustafa Santiago Ali, who helped guide that first office and is now executive vice president for the National Wildlife Federation, tells the Post that some past administrations prioritized environmental equity more than others. Of the increased size and budget of the new office, he says “it helps to make sure that environmental justice will always be dealt with on a high level.”

Environmental justice “will now become a part of the institutional fabric of EPA,” Vernice Miller-Travis, a longtime activist, tells the Post. “It’s going to take a hell of a lot to try to unravel that going forward.”

Dollie Burwell, who was arrested during the protests in Warren County forty years ago, tells the Times that she sees the new office “as another milestone to those of us who made sacrifices and went to jail, that somebody’s listening.”

Now, activists say, the office needs to deliver on its mission statement. It remains to be seen how states will use the money as the funds are distributed, and how effectively they will reach the communities that need resources the most. “How do you make sure those state agencies treat everyone equally under the law, which they haven’t always done before?” Miller-Travis says to the Post.

Ultimately, Burwell tells the Post, the new office is a victory—but the work isn’t done. “I see the progression of the commitment for achieving environmental justice,” she says to the newspaper. “But we can’t rest on our laurels.”

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