By Stacy M. Brown
For the better part of a month, National Newspaper Publishers Association President and CEO Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. traveled back and forth to North Carolina.
Chavis helped spearhead plans and events in observance of the 40th anniversary of the Warren County protests.
The 1982 protests occurred after officials dumped polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in predominately Black communities.
On Saturday, September 24, Chavis welcomed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, formally introducing him as he announced the establishment of 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,” EPA officials stated.
Chavis not only introduced Regan to a large crowd in Warrenton that included local and national media, but he also championed the administrator’s hiring.
“When I first coined the term environmental racism, our communities were being deliberately targeted for toxic waste and hazardous materials,” Chavis informed the crowd.
“I’m so happy that the administration had the good sense to put a brother over the EPA,” he continued.
“This brother not only represents historically Black colleges and universities but the community – a community in Wayne County with a history like Warren County of standing up for justice.
“Thank God we have a freedom fighter at the EPA. Thank God Michael Regan is the administrator of the EPA at a time where we not only connect civil rights with environmental justice, but we will have solutions.”
Regan said the new office plans to dedicate more than 200 EPA staff members across ten regions.
The administrator asserted that their mission is to solve environmental challenges in underserved communities that have been occurring for far too long.
Staffers will engage with communities about environmental justice concerns to understand their needs and Tribal, state, and local partners.
The staff also will manage and disburse “historic levels of grants and technical assistance; work with other EPA offices to incorporate environmental justice into the agency’s programs, policies, and processes, as allowed by law; and ensure EPA funding recipients comply with applicable civil rights laws,” Regan promised.
The Biden-Harris administration will seek Senate confirmation of an assistant administrator to lead the new office.
“President Biden and I have been clear: we must ground our work to address the climate crisis and our greatest environmental challenges in justice and equity,” said Vice President Kamala Harris.
“The establishment of a new office dedicated to advancing environmental justice and civil rights at EPA will ensure the lived experiences of underserved communities are central to our decision-making while supporting community-driven solutions.”
From day one, Regan said Biden and EPA had been committed to improving environmental justice and civil rights.
“Ensuring that underserved and overburdened communities are at the forefront of our work,” Regan insisted.
“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 address their concerns see action to solve the problems they’ve been facing for generations.”
The new office will oversee the implementation and delivery of a $3 billion climate and environmental justice block grant program created by the Inflation Reduction Act, a critical component of the law’s historic $60 billion investment in environmental justice.
The office also will ensure EPA’s implementation of other funding programs provided by the Inflation Reduction Act, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and regular appropriations meet or exceed the President’s Justice40 Initiative.
Administration officials said the new office counts as the latest significant action under Biden’s aggressive approach to embedding environmental justice, civil rights, and equity across the government.
It follows the launch of several initiatives designed to address the impacts of those living in underserved communities overburdened by pollution.
Initiatives include the establishment of the first-ever White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC); the launch of the Justice40 Initiative, which aims to provide 40 percent of the overall benefits of federal investments relating to climate change, clean energy, and related areas to disadvantaged communities; and more than 200 policy actions to move Biden’s ambitious environmental justice and civil rights agenda forward.
The EPA created the Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights Office by merging three existing programs at the agency – the Office of Environmental Justice, the External Civil Rights Compliance Office, and the Conflict Prevention and Resolution Center.
Officials said the new office would:
- Improve and enhance the agency’s ability to infuse equity, civil rights, and environmental justice principles and priorities into all EPA practices, policies, and programs.
- Support the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people concerning the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies regardless of race, color, national origin, or income.
- Engage communities with environmental justice concerns and increase support for community-led action through grants and technical assistance.
- Enforce federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination based on race, color, or national origin (including limited-English proficiency), sex; disability; or age by applicants for and recipients of federal financial assistance from EPA.
- Provide services and expertise in alternative dispute resolution, environmental conflict resolution, consensus-building, and collaborative problem-solving.
“This is a historic day. Not just for Warren County, North Carolina, where the environmental justice movement began, but for the millions of Americans across this country who have been demanding and fighting tirelessly for environmental justice for decades,” North Carolina Democratic Rep. G.K. Butterfield stated.
“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.”