The EPA’s launch of a new national environmental justice office will mean adding roughly a dozen staffers, with possibly more in the years ahead, to each of its 10 regional offices to help disadvantaged communities that have long borne the brunt of pollution, a top agency official said Wednesday.
The move will mean communities for the first time will be able to bring concerns to the Environmental Protection Agency at the regional level where there is more local expertise “to actually answer what’s going on in those communities,” Matthew Tejada, the agency’s deputy assistant administrator for environmental justice, told a agency panel that advises EPA on equity issues.
The EPA on Sept. 24 announced a new national environmental justice office that will focus about 200 EPA employees on better protecting low-income areas, communities of color, and other marginalized communities from pollution, Tejada said. Elevating the office will put equity concerns “squarely into decisionmaking,” he said, including agency regulatory development, enforcement, and civil rights protections.
“We now have no excuses,” he said, given the new Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights stands “shoulder to shoulder” with the agency’s air, water, waste, and other programs headed by assistant administrators who act essentially as lieutenants to the head of the agency.
EPA’s new national office had its first meeting Tuesday, Tejada said, and is now embarking on an effort to explain the reorganization to local governments, tribal representatives, and states. The move elevates a smaller existing environmental justice office long headed by Tejada, and combines it with EPA’s external civil rights office.
Some changes will mean an increased focus on disadvantaged communities and new hiring in EPA’s 10 regional offices, which typically have only a single agency employee currently focused on environmental justice issues, said Tejada, who spoke at a meeting of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council.
EPA plans to boost staffing to 10 to 12 environmental equity positions in every region, and that number “might go up to between 20 and 25, at least for some years” given additional funding provided under climate legislation (Public Law 117-169) signed into law in August, he said.
The signs of more regional resources within EPA is welcome news, said Nina McCoy, who sits on the NEJAC panel and heads an advocacy group battling for clean drinking water in Martin County, Ky.
McCoy heads the Martin County Concerned Citizens advocacy group, which has faulted the EPA for neglecting a region that has long pointed to coal industry pollution as the main culprit in polluting its water supply. The county was the site of a 2000 incident in which a failed coal slurry impoundment sent coal waste spilling into an abandoned underground mine.
“The community was very, very neglected and treated poorly” by EPA regional officials, who often seemed more concerned about protecting the industry than residents, McCoy said.
“So I’m so excited about the opportunity—that Washington has become team members” to work directly with communities, including the pledge for more robust environmental justice efforts by the regional offices, she said.
Joint Leadership for Now
The new office, which will ultimately be run by a yet-to-be named assistant administrator needing Senate confirmation, will oversee a massive infusion of federal funding being steered to environmental justice concerns.
That includes a $3 billion climate and environmental justice block grant program under the climate law and billions more under the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure package (Public Law 117-58).
The new prominence given to the EPA’s environmental equity and civil rights efforts is a significant expansion of efforts by previous environmental justice office, most recently housed under EPA’s Office of Policy and numbering roughly 80 employees including staffing regional offices, said Tejada, who prior to coming to EPA spent six years running an environmental advocacy group in the Houston area.
“I think of my own history being back in Houston, where I didn’t care what EPA did—I cared what the Port of Houston did. I cared what the city did. And I cared what the hospital district did,” Tejada said.
The launch of the national office changes that, he said. “Not only do we have the stature” under the elevated and expanded national office “but we have some resources” to lay the groundwork for what he said will be decades of work to address challenges of environmental injustices and racism “that have been centuries in the making.”
Office Head Named Soon
Biden is expected to announce his pick to head the new office “in the coming weeks or months,” Marianne Engelman-Lado, EPA’s deputy general counsel for environmental initiatives, told members of the advisory panel.
The new office also will take the lead in ensuring that the agency is focusing significant resources under its roughly $11 billion annual budget on low-income areas and communities of color under Justice40, a Biden administration initiative pledging 40% of the benefits from climate and other federal spending toward communities most affected by pollution.
Until the Senate confirms an appointee, the office will be run jointly by Tejada and Lilian Sotolongo Dorka, EPA’s deputy assistant administrator for external civil rights.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced the new office in Warren County, N.C., home to some of the earliest protests triggered by a proposed hazardous waste landfill in a predominately Black community. The office will have broad authority to infuse equity, civil rights, and environmental justice “into all aspects of our work,” Regan said.