EPA Opens Environmental Justice Office to Support Civil Rights

demonstration NYC

By Benjamin Seidman

WASHINGTON, DC, October 10, 2022 (ENS) – The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, has just established the Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights to serve underprivileged communities overburdened by the challenges created by lack of environmental justice. It will enforce civil rights laws, and deliver new grants and technical assistance.

“EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights will create new and environmentally favorable opportunities for communities disproportionately impacted by decades of environmental injustice. It will also effectively hold polluters legally accountable for civil rights violations,” Dr. Beverly Wright, who founded and directs the New Orleans-based Deep South Center for Environmental Justice said. “Through this new effort, funding and resources will finally make it to the communities that need it most.”

To make this possible, the EPA has devoted 200 employees across the country toward resolving environmental difficulties that have plagued underserved communities through collaboration with tribal, state, and community partners. The new office will be run by an assistant administrator who will be selected later on and must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

The office has been charged with managing the use of $3 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act championed and signed into law by President Joe Biden in August, which put an unprecedented $60 billion toward environmental justice.

The new office also will oversee the use of other funds and grants by the EPA to assure that they meet Biden’s Justice40 standard, which states that at least 40 percent of all benefits from certain federal investments, most environmentally related, should go to underserved communities.

U.S. Environmental Protecction Agency Adminnistrator Michael Regan, 2021 (Photo courtesy EPA)

The announcement was made by EPA Administrator Michael Regan in Warren County, North Carolina, a fitting site given that Regan is from North Carolina and also given the history of the 1982 Warren County environmental justice protests. These actions brought together diverse groups of protesters unified for the first time under the common cause of environmental justice. The protests are viewed as the start of the modern environmental justice movement.

“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 explained.

Congressman George Kenneth Butterfield Jr. of North Carolina, a Democrat, expressed the importance of the new office, saying, “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.”

By combining three previously existing offices – the Office of Environmental Justice, the External Civil Rights Compliance Office, and the Conflict Prevention and Resolution Center – into one single entity under the new Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights, the EPA intends to improve its ability to “infuse equity, civil rights, and environmental justice principles and priorities into all EPA practices, policies, and programs,” as well as “provide services and expertise in alternative dispute resolution, environmental conflict resolution, consensus-building, and collaborative problem solving.”

The link between the climate crisis and environmental justice for marginalized communities has been highlighted before.

Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, who chairs the Senate Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, said, “While climate chaos will affect us all, we’ve already seen that heat waves, deadly air pollution, and other burdens fall disproportionately on communities of color and marginalized communities with the fewest resources.”

Co-Chair of the House Environmental Justice Task Force, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal of Washington State, a Democrat, sees this office as an important step toward addressing these deep seated issues that plague our society.

“It is apparently clear that any bold action we take to address the climate crisis must be rooted in environmental justice. Too many of our marginalized communities have suffered environmental injustice for far too long.”

“President Biden and EPA Administrator Michael Regan understand this, Jayapal said. 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.”

Featured image: Say Her Name Vigil, hosted by the African American Policy Forum, sheds light on Black women’s experiences of police violence in an effort to support a gender-inclusive approach to racial justice. New York City, May 20, 2015 (Photo by Mia Fermindoza)

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