The Biden administration announced a new environmental justice initiative over the weekend, with $3 billion in block grants to go to communities and neighborhoods hard hit by pollution.

Michael Regan, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said the new Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights will have a prominent role in the agency and will be made up of more than 200 current EPA staff members to be located in 10 regions and will be led by an assistant administrator to be named by President Biden and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. 

Regan, the first Black man to hold the position, made the announcement in Warren County, North Carolina, near the site of a protest against a toxic waste dump 40 years ago that civil rights leaders laud as helping to spark the national environmental justice movement.  

The EPA’s announcement comes in light of the recognition that low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to experience harm from climate disasters and pollution, and that it’s past time to provide solutions. 

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“This is a much-needed step to achieve environmental justice,” said Joan Casey, an environmental health researcher at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, in an email. “We must start with communities and progress is difficult without funding and federal support.” 

A 2017 study by the Clean Air Task Force and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People found that Black Americans are exposed to 38 percent more polluted air than white Americans. They are also 75 percent more likely to live in communities that are adjacent to polluting industrial or service facilities and impacted by their noise, chemical emissions, odor, and traffic. 

An April study, for which Casey was a co-researcher, found that historically redlined neighborhoods were more likely to host oil and gas wells, which contributed to higher rates of respiratory illnesses and other public health disparities among residents.  

The creation of the office is part of the Biden administration’s wider climate and environmental policies. The Inflation Reduction Act, the most significant climate-change and environmental legislation to date for the administration, invests billions of dollars in climate and energy programs like electric charging infrastructure and the Justice40 Initiative.

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Jean Flemma, the co-founder of Urban Ocean Lab, part of a national coalition of coastal community environmental organizations, thinks that the new office will give communities most affected by climate change a better chance to voice their concerns directly to the government.

 “Today, I’m more inspired than ever by the deep, collaborative work that is happening to ensure environmental and ocean justice become a reality,” she said in an email.