Environmental justice is a priority for the Biden administration, with the president advocating for the use of a whole-of-government approach based on the latest science to improve environmental conditions in low-income communities and communities of color. When pressed to expand on the administration’s vision during Wednesday’s Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, Michael Regan, the president’s nominee for Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), offered an initial slate of actions the administration will take to work toward environmental justice.
Effects of pollution on underserved communities
Ensuring environmental justice means that no one bears a “disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental, and commercial operations or policies.” Historically, pollution-emitting facilities have often been constructed in low-income or minority communities. In 2018, the EPA National Center for Environmental Assessment released a study which found that people who lived in poverty were exposed to more damaging particulate matter 2.5 micrometers or smaller (PM 2.5) in the air than more affluent communities. Researchers in the academic community have published similar results. PM 2.5 exposure has been found to contribute to asthma, low birth weights, high blood pressure, and a variety of other health conditions. Because of this, low-income and minority communities have likely experienced an inordinate amount of PM 2.5-related health impacts.
Several recent incidents have brought greater attention to environmental justice issues, particularly the Flint, Michigan water crisis, in which thousands of children were exposed to highly toxic lead in the water supply, and “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana, where residents have been slowly poisoned by the emissions from nearby chemical plants. During the hearing, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) noted that a person’s skin color is one of the strongest indicators that they will live in a polluted environment. Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Ed Markey (D-MA), and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) echoed this sentiment, calling on Mr. Regan to explain the administration’s plan for improving the environmental living conditions of low-income and minority communities.
The Biden administration and environmental justice
Mr. Regan acknowledged the Senators’ concerns and laid out his initial steps for incorporating environmental justice issues into the EPA’s future work. These steps include:
- Reviving and strengthening the EPA’s Office of Environmental Rights, which works to address disproportionate adverse human health and environmental impacts;
- Hiring a dedicated environmental justice advisor for his office;
- Restructuring the EPA so that environmental justices issues are at the forefront; and
- Ensuring that the agency uses the best, most updated science to make decisions, as well as increasing the transparency of the agency’s decision-making process.
Mr. Regan has had extensive experience with environmental justice issues during his time as the Secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality. As secretary, he formed the state’s first Environmental Justice and Equity Board, which brought together a diverse set of stakeholders to help the state government issue consistent, equitable policies regarding environmental health issues. Mr. Regan also spearheaded a multi-billion dollar settlement with Duke Energy to clean up several large coal ash ponds which were contaminating the water supply and the air, the most costly coal ash cleanup project in the country. During his nomination hearing, Mr. Regan assured the Committee that he will draw on his experience in North Carolina to lead the EPA during this new administration.
Environmental justice now a top federal priority
Environmental justice has quickly become a leading priority for both the White House and Congress as the Biden administration ramps up. It is likely that Congress will hold more hearings on this issue featuring numerous experts from the private and public sectors. We will be tracking this issue closely and encourage the CSPI community to get involved by sending in your questions and ideas to future Calls to Action.