The EPA’s move to merge its environmental justice and civil rights offices into a new national office is being lauded for focusing resources on the plight of marginalized communities long burdened by pollution.
Dubbed the Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights, the new office will oversee billions of dollars in new funding authorized under the climate legislation (Public Law 117-169) signed into law in August and the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure package (Public Law 117-58).
The new national office, which will ultimately be overseen by a yet-to-be confirmed assistant EPA administrator, will be the new home for the agency’s Conflict Prevention and Resolution Center, which works to resolve disputes over environmental cleanups.
The move is seen as “a step towards seeking justice for vulnerable communities and our planet,” said Catherine Flowers, founding director of the Alabama-based Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice.
‘Long Time Coming’
The changes were announced Saturday by EPA Administrator Michael Regan, flanked by civil rights and environmental justice advocates, in Warren County, N.C., home to the nation’s earliest environmental justice protests in response to a proposed hazardous waste landfill in a predominately Black community.
“This has been a long time coming,” said Sylvia Orduno, an organizer with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization who spoke at the announcement.
“Nothing matches the tremendous opportunities and advances in environmental justice we are seeing,” including newly energized advocacy groups and more federal attention to challenges in disadvantaged communities, said Orduno, who also co-chairs the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council that advises EPA on environmental equity issues.
The merging of the offices and the move toward a national equity office date to the spring of 2021, when the Biden administration proposed elevating its existing Office of Environmental Justice—until now operated within its Office of Policy—and tucking it under a newly created assistant EPA administrator. The new post will require Senate confirmation but would put the agency’s top environmental equity official on par with other assistant administrators tapped to oversee key EPA priorities including enforcement, air, and water.
EPA provided no details on timing for the nominee, only that they would be announced “at a later date.”
‘Embedding’ Equity in EPA
Regan said the announcement shows the agency is embedding environmental justice and civil rights into the DNA of the EPA and ensuring that people who’ve struggled to have their concerns addressed see action.
The newly formed Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights will combine efforts by more than 200 EPA employees on low-income and disadvantaged communities that have been disproportionately affected by pollution and increasing climate-related impacts such as flooding and rising sea levels.
Prior to the announced merger, the External Civil Rights Compliance Office—which works to ensure recipients of agency funding comply with federal nondiscrimination laws including the Civil Rights Act—operated within the EPA Office of General Counsel.
The new office will oversee the implementation and delivery of a $3 billion climate and environmental justice block grant program created by the climate legislation signed into law in August, which overall provided $60 billion in environmental justice funding. In addition to overseeing the new infrastructure funding, the office will ensure agency appropriations “meet or exceed” President Joe Biden’s Justice40 efforts.
Under Justice40, the Biden administration has pledged that 40% of the benefits from climate and other federal spending will go toward communities most affected by pollution.
Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, said the office will more effectively “hold polluters legally accountable for civil rights violations” following decades “of denial and inaction.”
Much of the progress environmental justice communities are seeing from the Biden administration “is a testament to the progress the environmental justice movement has made,” and their fight for environmental justice will continue, said Wright, who also serves on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.