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Biden’s new environmental justice office will oversee $3 billion in grants to polluted communities

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Michael Regan, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), speaks during an event at the EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Dec. 20, 2021.
Samuel Corum | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency on Saturday launched an office that will focus on supporting and delivering grant money to minority communities in the U.S. disproportionally affected by pollution and other environmental issues.

The Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights is comprised of more than 200 EPA staff in ten U.S. regions and will be led by a Senate-confirmed assistant administrator. The office will oversee the delivery of a $3 billion climate and environmental justice block grant program created by the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, which includes $60 billion for environmental justice initiatives.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan made the announcement on Saturday in Warren County, North Carolina, a predominantly Black community that protested the operation of a hazardous waste landfill four decades ago and consequently ignited the environmental justice movement.

“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 have their concerns addressed see action to solve the problems they’ve been facing for generations,” Regan said in a statement.

Early in his presidency, Biden vowed that environmental justice would be a core component of his climate agenda and signed an executive order that launched the the Justice40 Initiative, which requires federal agencies to deliver at least 40% of benefits from specific funding to disadvantaged communities overburden by pollution.

Research published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters found that communities of color are systematically exposed to higher levels of air pollution than White communities due to a federal housing discrimination practice called redlining. Black Americans are also 75% more likely than White Americans to live near facilities that produce hazardous waste, according to the Clean Air Task Force, and are three times more likely to die from exposure to air pollutants.

“For decades, communities of color and low-income communities have faced disproportionate impacts from environmental contamination,” said Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University. “EPA’s efforts under this new office will deliver progress for the communities that need action now.”

The office will enforce civil rights laws and deliver new grants and technical assistance in overburdened communities. It will also work with other EPA offices to incorporate environmental justice into the agency’s programs.

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