The U.S. EPA has created a new Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights, a move meant to recognize environmental justice as a permanent facet of the EPA’s work.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced the office’s creation at an event Saturday in Warren County, North Carolina. The site became known for civil rights and environmental justice protests in 1982, when the majority-Black community protested North Carolina’s decision to dump contaminated soil in a landfill there.
Environmental justice is a major Biden administration priority, Regan said during the event, and the office is a symbol of the EPA’s commitment to making EJ “the forefront and the center of everything this agency does,” regardless of who heads the EPA or is elected president.
“It will improve our ability to infuse equity, civil rights and environmental justice to every single thing we do, from our regulations to our enforcement to our policy,” he said.
The EPA will merge the existing offices of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights Compliance and the Conflict Prevention and Resolution Center to create the new office, according to a news release from the EPA. Leading the new office will be a U.S. Senate-confirmed assistant EPA administrator.
The new office will be responsible for working directly with communities with environmental justice concerns, enforcing federal civil rights laws, providing environmental conflict resolution services and offering grants and technical assistance, the release said.
The office will oversee the implementation of a $3 billion climate and environmental justice block grant program that is part of the Inflation Reduction Act. It will also ensure funding from recent laws, such as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, complies with Biden’s Justice40 initiative, an executive order to deliver 40% of federal agency benefits to disadvantaged communities.
The office’s more than 200 staff members will be spread out across the agency’s 10 regional offices and its headquarters in Washington, D.C. The EPA expects the Senate to confirm a director for the office at a later date.
Dollie Burwell, who participated in the 1982 protests, recalled at the event the fear and anger Warren County residents experienced at that time. The EPA’s decision to announce the office in her hometown “acknowledges and recognizes the work, the tremendous sacrifice and the legacy of Warren County citizens” and activists who continue to fight for environmental justice today, she said.