WASHINGTON (September 27, 2022) – In case you missed it, on Saturday, September 24, EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan announced that EPA is establishing a new national office charged with advancing environmental justice and civil rights. The creation of the new Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights delivers on President Biden’s commitment to elevate these critical issues to the highest levels of the government and solidifies the agency’s commitment to delivering justice and equity for all.
Administrator Regan announced the creation of the new office alongside environmental justice and civil rights leaders in Warren County, North Carolina, which was the site of protests 40 years ago that launched the environmental justice movement. The office launch was covered by a number of outlets, including the Associated Press, The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN, and was highlighted by leaders across the country, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Reverend Al Sharpton, Congressman G.K. Butterfield, Rev. Dr. William Barber II and more.
WHAT THEY ARE SAYING
Peggy Shepard, co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice: “The establishment of EPA’s new Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights is a significant step forward in the fight to deliver clean air, water and land for all in an equitable and just way. We thank the Biden Administration and this EPA for centering environmental justice and civil rights in the Agency’s mission and efforts. We look forward to engaging with the new national program to elevate the experiences of overburdened communities facing disproportionate impacts of pollution and ensure these communities receive the environmental and economic benefits they deserve.”
Dr. Beverly Wright, Founder and Executive Director, Deep South Center for Environmental Justice: “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. 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. Through this new effort, funding and resources will finally make 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: “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. 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.”
Congressman G.K. Butterfield (NC): “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. I commend President Biden, Vice President Harris, and EPA Administrator Michael Regan on their work to create the Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights. Today’s announcement, which comes on the heels of the historic climate and environmental justice investments in the Inflation Reduction Act, is another bold example that the Biden-Harris Administration and Congress will ensure every community has a voice and the investments needed to grow and thrive. Working together, we will solve the climate crisis and make America’s clean energy economy the envy of the world.”
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper: “For too long, our underserved communities have been disproportionately impacted by climate change and unfair environmental impacts. 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.”
Senator Tom Carper, Chair of Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (DE): “As Chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee and a co-founder of the Senate Environmental Justice Caucus, I applaud this move by Administrator Regan to create EPA’s first-ever Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights. Far too many of our most disadvantaged Americans continue to live in communities where clean water, clean air, and a healthy environment aren’t a reality. That is why having 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.”
Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr., Chair of House Committee on Energy and Commerce (NJ): “With the opening of this important new office, the Biden EPA is once again demonstrating genuine commitment to environmental justice communities and ensuring that they won’t be overlooked or disregarded. I commend Administrator Regan for bringing this vision to life. EJ communities are most at risk, and yet they are the ones that have historically been most underserved — but today I am optimistic that together we will right those wrongs, and I’m looking forward to working with this new office to ensure that we do.”
Senator Jeff Merkley, Chair of Senate Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee (OR): “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. As Chairman of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, I personally approved the creation of this new Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights and worked hard to secure an unprecedented increase to $100 million in FY22 funding for the office. I look forward to partnering with this team as we continue to mitigate racial inequities, tackle environmental justice concerns, and work to ensure every American in every community has clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and green spaces to enjoy.”
Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, Chair of House Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee (ME-01): “As Chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, I have fought to ensure environmental justice programs receive the funding they have long needed to uplift our most vulnerable while protecting the environment. I am grateful that President Biden has been a partner in our efforts to comprehensively protect American communities from environmental hazards. With the launch of a new Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights, the Biden administration has not only solidified its commitment to environmental justice, it has also made a historic step toward environmental equity for all Americans.”
Senators Cory Booker (NJ) and Tammy Duckworth (IL), Co-Chairs of the Senate Environmental Justice Caucus: “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. 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.”
Congressman A. Donald McEachin, Co-Chair of House Environmental Justice Task Force (VA-04): “I applaud President Joe Biden and EPA Administrator Michael Regan for their continued commitment to prioritizing and advancing environmental justice. We cannot combat the climate crisis without confronting environmental injustice, and today’s announcement is recognition of this fact. The EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights is a welcomed addition, especially as federal investments from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act are dispersed to states and localities. Together, we will continue fighting to ensure no community is left behind.”
Congresswoman Nanette Diaz Barragán, Co-Chair of House Environmental Justice Task Force (CA-44): “This new office demonstrates EPA’s deep commitment to environmental justice, and its creation comes at a critical time in our fight against the climate crisis. It will help EPA implement the unprecedented investments in the Inflation Reduction Act, including $3 billion in climate and environmental justice grants I secured. The Office will strengthen EPA’s partnership with environmental justice communities in my district and throughout the country to reduce pollution and hold polluters accountable.”
Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, Co-Chair of House Environmental Justice Task Force (WA-07): “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. 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. I look forward to continuing working with the Administration in pursuit of that goal.”
Senator Dick Durbin (IL): “Breathing clean air and having access to clean water shouldn’t be a privilege for the few. It’s the right of every American, but too often we see low-income communities and neighborhoods of color face the brunt of environmental hazards, resulting in damage to public health. I’m encouraged by the launch of the new Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights to ensure that every community, particularly those who have historically faced the most harm from environmental mismanagement, has access to clean air and water. I look forward to working alongside the new EPA office on behalf of Illinoisans.”
Dr. Margot Brown, Vice President of Justice & Equity at Environmental Defense Fund: “This monumental move to create a new Office of Environmental Justice at Environmental Protection Agency is long overdue. During my time at EPA, I saw the enormous potential that federal attention and resources can have for environmental justice efforts. This development is an important step to mobilize work at every level to achieve a more just future. The climate crisis demands us to sharpen our commitment to environmental action and — crucially — to invest in the communities most affected by environmental degradation and disaster. 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.”
Leslie Fields, Sierra Club National Director of Policy, Advocacy, and Legal: “We’re pleased with the EPA’s announcement to merge their environmental justice and civil rights offices, and hope this action leads to meaningful change in historically environmentally overburdened and underserved communities across the country. 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.”
For more information, please visit the new Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights website.
Below are excerpts from coverage of the office launch:
AP: Biden administration launches environmental justice office
By Hannah Schoenbaum, September 24, 2022
The Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights — comprised of more than 200 current staff members in 10 U.S. regions — will merge three existing EPA programs to oversee a portion of Democrats’ $60 billion investment in environmental justice initiatives created by the Inflation Reduction Act. The president will nominate an assistant administrator to lead the new office, pending Senate confirmation.
“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 said in an interview. “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.”
Biden has championed environmental justice as a centerpiece of his climate agenda since his first week in office, when he signed an executive order pledging 40% of the overall benefits from certain federal clean energy investments to disadvantaged communities overwhelmed by pollution.
The Rev. Dr. William Barber II, a prominent social activist and leader of the Poor People’s campaign, said he sees Regan’s announcement as “a great starting point” and will continue to demand more of the Biden administration.
“Our votes are not support. Our votes are our demands,” Barber said in an interview. “This is not about right versus left, it’s about right versus wrong. This is about a lifestyle versus disability because when you poison the land and the water, you hurt people’s everyday life.”
Regan, who is from Goldsboro, North Carolina, said he grew up listening to local civil rights leaders like Barber and Burwell — the early inspirations for his work at the EPA.
“I’m taking all of these experiences (from my childhood) and matching that with the vision of the president,” Regan said. “We’re using this opportunity to not only honor those who came before us, but we’re building on the work that they started. We’re standing on their shoulders and trying to reach higher heights.”
The Washington Post: EPA unveils new office to place environmental justice at agency’s core
By Brady Dennis, September 24, 2022
On a sunny fall afternoon, leaders from around the country gathered under a pair of maple trees on the lawn of an old county courthouse to pay tribute to the movement’s beginnings, and to hear Michael Regan, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, announce the creation of a high-level office dedicated to environmental justice and civil rights.
“Phenomenal,” Burwell said of the prospect that such issues will become a cornerstone of an agency that for decades did not prioritize, or even always fully acknowledge, the nation’s persistent environmental inequities. “This announcement is even more affirmation that the work was not in vain.”
The formation of an Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights, which will have hundreds of staff members and a Senate-confirmed director, marks one of the most visible efforts so far by the Biden administration to ensure that the well being of marginalized communities is an integral part of federal decision-making.
By placing the new office on par with the EPA’s other core programs, such as those that oversee the nation’s air and water regulations, the White House also hopes to enshrine the focus on environmental justice in ways that future administrations cannot simply ignore.
“It will improve our ability to infuse equity, civil rights and environmental justice into every single thing we do,” Regan said Saturday. “It will memorialize the agency’s commitment to delivering justice and equity for all, ensuring that no matter who sits in the Oval Office or no matter who heads EPA, this work will continue long beyond all of us to be at the forefront and the center of everything this agency does.”
“I can’t tell you how much time we spent debating whether environmental justice — or environmental injustice — was a real thing,” said Vernice Miller-Travis, a veteran activist for affected communities. “We spent decades going around and around on that.”
She hopes that Saturday’s announcement means those days are finally over.
“It will now become a part of the institutional fabric of EPA,” Miller-Travis said. “It’s going to take a hell of a lot to try to unravel that going forward.”
President Biden has made tackling the nation’s environmental disparities a cornerstone of his administration, making the issue a priority in a way no previous president has.
In the days after he took office, Biden directed agencies across the government to invest in low-income and minority communities that have traditionally borne the brunt of pollution.
The Biden administration said it is making progress. It points to the tens of billions of dollars included in last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law, including money to update aging drinking water infrastructure around the country, as well as to cap leaking oil and gas wells, reclaim abandoned mine caps and clean up toxic pollution sites located near disadvantaged communities.
In addition, the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act contains billions more in grants targeted toward environmental and climate justice, such as cleaning up ports and rail yards and increased air-quality monitoring near schools and vulnerable neighborhoods. Those funds will be overseen by the new EPA office announced Saturday.
Collectively, those and other measures are designed “to ensure that benefits flow to disadvantaged communities today and in the future,” Candace Vahlsing, associate director for climate at the White House Office of Management and Budget, said in an email.
Not far from where Burwell had once found herself marching in the street and carted away in handcuffs, she now found herself celebrating the sort of affirmation she and others had never quite anticipated.
“I’m tremendously excited. It’s a huge step forward,” Burwell said in the lead-up to the event. “We worked a long time to get EPA to understand and to acknowledge environmental racism … Just acknowledging that is important to me.”
But Burwell is quick to add that it is important not to grow complacent, that the threat of injustice is unceasing.
“If I’ve learned anything over 40 years, it’s that the work is not done,” she said. “I see the progression of the commitment for achieving environmental justice. But we can’t rest on our laurels.”
She and many of the others gathered on the courthouse lawn had come too far, seen too much, for that.
“The war is won in incremental struggles, one battle at a time,” Burwell said. “The war is never over.”
The New York Times: E.P.A. Will Make Racial Equality a Bigger Factor in Environmental Rules
By Coral Davenport, September 24, 2022
WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency will establish a new national office of environmental justice, the Biden administration’s latest effort to rectify the disproportionate harm caused by pollution and climate change in communities of color and in low-income cities, towns and counties.
Michael S. Regan, the E.P.A. administrator and the first Black man to run the agency, announced the creation of the office alongside environmental justice and civil rights leaders on Saturday in Warren County, N.C., the site of a toxic dump where protesters were arrested 40 years ago, giving rise to the environmental justice movement.
“From day one, the president and E.P.A. have been committed to not just making progress on environmental justice and civil rights, but to ensure that environmental justice and civil rights are at the center of everything we do, that we enshrine it in a way that outlasts any of us,” Mr. Regan said in a telephone interview on Friday.
Dollie Burwell, who was arrested at the Warren County dump in 1982 and is sometimes called the mother of environmental justice, said she saw the creation of the office “as another milestone to those of us who made sacrifices and went to jail, that somebody’s listening.”
The new national office will combine three smaller midlevel offices of environmental justice, civil rights and conflict prevention and resolution into one high-level office with a Senate-confirmed assistant administrator who reports directly to Mr. Regan. It will be staffed by 200 people, in Washington and across the agency’s 10 regional offices — up from 55 people who today carry out the agency’s environmental justice and civil rights work. That will put the expanded environmental justice office on equal footing with the E.P.A.’s national offices of air, water and chemical pollution, which together make up the agency’s central mission of reducing pollution and protecting public health.
“I’m excited to see the merging of the offices of environmental justice and civil rights,” Ms. Burwell said. She said that she saw the structural change at the E.P.A. as a single step among many that the administration must still take in order to achieve President Biden’s environmental justice promises. “As a person who attended segregated schools, I expect incremental achievements.”
Mr. Biden, who prevailed in the 2020 Democratic primaries with help from Black voters, was the first president to elevate environmental justice, the idea that all people have an equal right to protection from environmental and health hazards. He established a 25-member White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, the first of its kind, and called on all federal agencies to ensure disadvantaged communities receive 40 percent of the benefits from federal investment in clean air and water, flood prevention, cleanup of Superfund sites, renewable energy and other improvements. In May, the Justice Department announced the creation of an office of environmental justice, charged with investigating and prosecuting violations of environmental laws.