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EPA to make racial equality a bigger factor in environmental rules

EPA to make racial equality a bigger factor in environmental rules

By Coral Davenport

© The New York Times Co.

WASHINGTON » The Environmental Protection Agency will establish a new national office of environmental justice, the Biden administration’s latest effort to rectify the disproportionate harm caused by pollution and climate change in communities of color and in low-income cities, towns and counties.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan, the first Black man to run the agency, announced the creation of the office alongside environmental justice and civil rights leaders Saturday in Warren County, N.C., the site of a toxic dump where protesters were arrested 40 years ago, giving rise to the environmental justice movement.

“From day one, the president and EPA have been committed to not just making progress on environmental justice and civil rights, but to ensure that environmental justice and civil rights are at the center of everything we do, that we enshrine it in a way that outlasts any of us,” Regan said in a telephone interview on Friday.

Regan said he intended to ensure that all new air, water and chemical safety regulations, many of which affect the profits of electric utilities as well as automakers and other major manufacturers, would now be inscribed with provisions that try to mitigate the impact of environmental damage to poor and minority communities. That could include stricter pollution controls.

“When you look at the way EPA does this risk analysis to determine the level of stringency for protecting communities, we will take into account communities and how they have been impacted over time,” said Regan, who has crisscrossed the country, visiting communities that bear a disproportionate amount of air and water pollution. “And how those regulations in the past may not have been as protective of some communities, as we are positioned to do moving forward.”

Dollie Burwell, who was arrested at the Warren County dump in 1982 and is sometimes called the mother of environmental justice, said she saw the creation of the office “as another milestone to those of us who made sacrifices and went to jail, that somebody’s listening.”

The new national office will combine three smaller midlevel offices of environmental justice, civil rights and conflict prevention and resolution into one highlevel office with a Senate-confirmed assistant administrator who reports directly to Regan.

It will be staffed by 200 people, in Washington and across the agency’s 10 regional offices — up from 55 people who today carry out the agency’s environmental justice and civil rights work. That will put the expanded environmental justice office on equal footing with the EPA’s national offices of air, water and chemical pollution, which together make up the agency’s central mission of reducing pollution and protecting public health.

The EPA is working now on new rules to reduce pollution from auto tailpipes, factory and power plant smokestacks; dumping into waterways; and leaks from oil and gas wells. All could be shaped by the considerations of environmental justice, Regan said.

With an annual operating budget of $100 million, the new office will oversee the implementation of a $3 billion climate and environmental justice block grant program that was created after passage last month of the nation’s first major climate law. The new law also includes a broader $60 billion investment in environmental justice.

Not all environmental justice activists have given President Joe Biden high marks.

Wes Gobar, a leader with the Movement for Black Lives, criticized a deal struck last month by Democratic leaders with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. Under that arrangement, Manchin supplied the pivotal vote to pass the climate legislation in exchange for a promise that the Senate would pass a separate bill to make it easier for oil and gas pipelines to win federal permits.

“This deal exchanges the health of Black lives across the country in exchange for fossil fuel profits,” Gobar said.

 

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