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
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
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.