The Environmental Protection Agency’s quest to elevate its top environmental justice post to one that needs Senate confirmation may drag into next year—if it happens at all—despite being a top priority for the Biden administration.
Congress still needs to authorize the position at a time when it has numerous competing priorities. In addition to getting through the Senate, the new appointee would need to assuage the concerns of labor unions, which would have some say in shaping any reorganization of the EPA’s existing environmental justice employees. That process alone typically takes at least several months, according to a union official.
EPA’s proposal—outlined in its fiscal 2022 budget plan—calls for a new national environmental justice office under a newly created assistant EPA administrator. But the agency has yet to unveil a detailed plan for the national program.
“It’s not as easy as it sounds—it’s like getting a ship built,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, who helped lead the EPA’s environmental justice effort for decades before resigning early in the Trump administration.
How the agency will get congressional authorization remains unclear.
The EPA’s existing Office of Environmental Justice is tucked into its Office of Policy. Creating an assistant administrator position would put its top environmental justice official on par with other assistant administrators—overseeing air, water, and enforcement for example—who act essentially as lieutenants to the administrator.
Reorganizing the top tier of the agency in such a way would most directly affect the more than two dozen employees working in the current environmental justice office, which is headed by a director, Matthew Tejada. However, roughly 80 agency employees have some role in addressing environmental justice issues, including in EPA’s 10 regional offices.
Authorization for a Senate-confirmed post hasn’t made it into the EPA fiscal 2022 budget spending measure, which is part of the broader EPA-Interior appropriations bill that the House Appropriations Committee cleared July 1, according to a committee spokesman.
Discussions are continuing between the committee and EPA on the proposal, according to congressional aides familiar with the issue.
Multiple options exist for attaching such language in legislation, particularly bills with bipartisan backing and thus more likely to get to the floor—from a water infrastructure measure to the bipartisan infrastructure package, a Senate Democratic aide said. But there’s been been little or no discussion on how to handle the EPA’s push to create the new position, the aide said.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said opting to make the post Senate-confirmed signals the EPA’s seriousness in making environmental justice an important priority.
Carper’s panel would hold the initial vote on confirming a nominee. But it will be an empty gesture if Congress doesn’t ramp up funding to battle environmental inequities, he said.
“We could have somebody who wears the title but if we don’t actually provide the funding to make it real, then we are just fooling people,” Carper said.
Video: The Biden Administration has pledged to make environmental justice a priority. Here’s a look at the limited legal options impacted communities have to combat negative environmental impacts.
‘Won’t Be Shortchanged’
Unions embrace the agency’s push to elevate environmental justice issues. But they’re sensitive to any reorganizations following the Trump administration’s controversial moves, including relocating the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters from Washington, D.C. to Grand Junction, Colo.
The reorganization would require consultation with union representatives, who say those discussions could take six months or more, based on past reorganizations.
Nicole Cantello, an EPA attorney in the agency’s Midwest region and president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704 in Chicago, said the union “would be generally supportive of EJ being infused into all facets of the agency.”
However, the union would make sure workers “won’t be shortchanged in any reorganization, including work-life balance issues,” she said.
Historically, the EPA’s regional offices have been on the front lines implementing policies from pesticides to water quality set in Washington, D.C., “though for environmental justice there has been a fairly long leash” for regional staff to do their work, she said.
“It’s always possible the regions might feel like there’s too heavy a hand, and too much prescription” under the reorganization, she said,"so there might be some chafing and it might not suit some people.”
Environmental justice advocates generally back the EPA’s plan to make the post Senate-confirmed. But they warn the move could take time, and won’t by itself solve decades of inattention to communities of color and low-income areas that have borne the brunt of pollution.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan has vowed to hire a separate senior policy adviser for environmental justice to counsel him on priority issues affecting low-income communities of color as they arise. The agency has yet to announce Regan’s pick.
While not a Senate-confirmed post, Regan’s adviser would elevate environmental justice issues in the Office of the Administrator, a team of top officials who advise the EPA’s leader on science, civil rights, children’s health, and other matters.
The agency is still drawing up plans for putting the agency’s environmental justice efforts under one roof and will work with the White House Office of Management and Budget and Congress on the proposal, EPA Deputy Press Secretary Tim Carroll said.