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Admin Opens Environment Justice Office 09/25 08:10

   

   WARRENTON, N.C. (AP) -- President Joe Biden's top environment official 
visited what is widely considered the birthplace of the environmental justice 
movement Saturday to unveil a national office that will distribute $3 billion 
in block grants to underserved communities burdened by pollution.

   Forty years after a predominantly Black community in Warren County, North 
Carolina, rallied against hosting a hazardous waste landfill, Michael Regan, 
the first Black man to serve as administrator of the Environmental Protection 
Agency, announced he is dedicating a new senior level of leadership to the 
environmental justice movement they ignited.

   The Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights -- comprised 
of more than 200 current staff members in 10 U.S. regions -- will merge three 
existing EPA programs to oversee a portion of Democrats' $60 billion investment 
in environmental justice initiatives created by the Inflation Reduction Act. 
The president will nominate an assistant administrator to lead the new office, 
pending Senate confirmation.

   "In the past, many of our communities have had to compete for very small 
grants because EPA's pot of money was extremely small," Regan said in an 
interview. "We're going from tens of thousands of dollars to developing and 
designing a program that will distribute billions. But we're also going to be 
sure that this money goes to those who need it the most and those who've never 
had a seat at the table."

   Biden has championed environmental justice as a centerpiece of his climate 
agenda since his first week in office, when he signed an executive order 
pledging 40% of the overall benefits from certain federal clean energy 
investments to disadvantaged communities overwhelmed by pollution.

   Now, Regan said, this new office intertwines environmental justice with the 
central fabric of the EPA, equating it to other top offices like air and water, 
and cementing its principles in a way that will outlive the administration.

   North Carolina in 1978 designated Warren County, a small, predominantly 
Black farming community along the Virginia border, as a disposal site for 
truckloads of soil laced with highly carcinogenic chemical compounds that later 
contaminated the water supply.

   As the first trucks rolled into town in 1982, hundreds of residents flooded 
the streets, blocking their path to the landfill. Though they were unable to 
shut down the operation after six weeks of nonviolent protests and more than 
500 arrests, their efforts have been lauded by civil rights leaders as the 
impetus for a global uprising against environmental racism in minority 
communities.

   Wayne Moseley, 73, was one of the initial protesters arrested on the first 
day of the demonstration. The Raleigh resident commuted to Warren County to 
march on behalf of his mother, whose health prevented her from participating. 
He called Saturday's ceremony "a homecoming" for himself and many other 
protesters he hadn't seen for 40 years.

   "We became a family, no Black or white, no rich or poor -- we were all one," 
Moseley said. "The state was hell-bent on putting that dump site here. I knew 
we couldn't stop it, but we could elevate the consciousness of not only the 
state but the nation."

   Dollie Burwell, a protest leader known in the community as "the mother of 
the movement," honored the bravery of her late daughter Kimberly Burwell, who 
was only 8 years old when she joined her mother on the frontlines.

   "She stood up and led so many children in the protests," Burwell said of her 
daughter during the ceremony. "She was not afraid of being arrested. But she 
was afraid of her family and friends getting cancer" from carcinogenic 
compounds in the soil.

   Government officials have routinely targeted low-income communities of color 
like Warren County to host hazardous waste facilities since the early 1900s. 
And the neglect of critical infrastructure in predominantly Black communities, 
ranging from Flint, Michigan, to Jackson, Mississippi, has led to problems 
still seen today.

   An April study by the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia 
University found that the majority of Black and Latino neighborhoods that 
received low scores in a discriminatory federal housing program known as 
redlining were home to twice as many oil wells as majority white communities. 
According to the Clean Air Task Force, Black Americans are 75% more likely than 
white Americans to live near a factory or plant and nearly four times as likely 
to die from exposure to pollutants.

   The Rev. Dr. William Barber II, a prominent social activist and leader of 
the Poor People's campaign, said he sees Regan's announcement as "a great 
starting point" and will continue to demand more of the Biden administration.

   "Our votes are not support. Our votes are our demands," Barber said in an 
interview. "This is not about right versus left, it's about right versus wrong. 
This is about a lifestyle versus disability because when you poison the land 
and the water, you hurt people's everyday life."

   Regan, who is from Goldsboro, North Carolina, said he grew up listening to 
local civil rights leaders like Barber and Burwell -- the early inspirations 
for his work at the EPA.

   "I'm taking all of these experiences (from my childhood) and matching that 
with the vision of the president," Regan said. "We're using this opportunity to 
not only honor those who came before us, but we're building on the work that 
they started. We're standing on their shoulders and trying to reach higher 
heights."

   Just 45 days out from the midterm election, Regan is among several Cabinet 
members visiting North Carolina this month to promote the president's 
achievements, including the visits of Vice President Kamala Harris on Sept. 1 
and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen next Tuesday in Durham. Democrats have set 
their sights on the Southern swing state as a potential pickup in the narrowly 
divided U.S. Senate and other key offices.

 
 
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