WARRENTON, NC (AP) — President Joe Biden’s top environmental official visited what many consider 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 person to serve as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced that he is dedicating a new senior level of leadership to the environmental justice movement they have ignited.
The Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights — comprised of more than 200 current employees in 10 US regions — will combine three existing EPA programs to oversee a portion of the Democrats’ $60 billion investment in environmental justice initiative 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 had to compete for very small grants because the EPA pot of money was very small,” Regan said in an interview. “We went from tens of thousands of dollars to develop and design a program that will distribute billions. But we also make sure that this money goes to those who need it most and those who have not yet sat at the table.
Biden has emphasized environmental justice as central to his climate agenda since his first week in office, when he signed an executive order promises 40% of the total benefits from certain federal clean energy investments to poor communities burdened by pollution.
Now, Regan said, this new office is linking environmental justice to the central fabric of the EPA, aligning it with other top offices such as air and water, and cementing its principles in a way that will live on. 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 filled with carcinogenic chemicals that later the water supply is contaminated.
As the first trucks rolled into town in 1982, hundreds of residents flooded the streets, blocking their way to the landfill. Although they were unable to stop the operation after six weeks of nonviolent protests and more than 500 arrests, their efforts were praised by civil rights leaders for causing a global outcry. revolt against environmental racism in minority communities.
Wayne Moseley, 73, was one of the first protesters arrested on the first day of the demonstration. The Raleigh resident moved to Warren County to march for her mother, whose health prevented her from participating. He called Saturday’s ceremony “a homecoming” for himself and many other protesters he hadn’t seen in 40 years.
“We became one family, no Black or white, no rich or poor – we’re all one,” Moseley said. “The state is determined to put the dump site here. I know we can’t stop it, but we can raise awareness not only in the state but in the country.
Dollie Burwell, a protest leader known in the community as the “mother of the movement,” honored the courage of her late daughter Kimberly Burwell, who was just 8 years old when she joined her mother on the frontlines.
“She stood up and led a lot of kids in protests,” Burwell said of her daughter during the ceremony. “He is not afraid of being arrested. But he is afraid that his family and friends will get cancer” from the carcinogenic compounds in the soil.
Government officials have often targeted low-income communities of color like Warren County for hosting hazardous waste facilities since the early 1900s. And the neglect of critical infrastructure in predominantly Black communities, from Flint, Michiganon Jackson, Mississippiled to problems that can still be seen today.
An April study at the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University found that predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods that received low scores in a discriminatory federal housing program known as redlining were home to twice as many more oil wells than most white communities. According to Clean Air Task ForceBlack Americans are 75% more likely than white Americans to live near a factory or plant and are nearly four times more likely to die from exposure to pollutants.
Rev. dr. William Barber II, a prominent social activist and leader of the Poor People’s campaign, said he saw Regan’s announcement as “a good starting point” and would continue to demand more from the Biden administration.
“Our votes are not support. Our votes are our demands,” Barber said in the interview. “It’s not about right versus left, it’s about right versus wrong. It’s about a lifestyle against disability because if you poison the land and the water, you harm people’s daily lives.
Regan, who is from Goldsboro, North Carolina, said he grew up listening to local civil rights leaders like Barber and Burwell — the first inspirations for his work at the EPA.
“I took all these experiences (from my childhood) and matched them with the president’s vision,” Regan said. “We use this opportunity to not only honor those who came before us, but we build on the work they started. We stand on their shoulders and strive to reach greater heights.
Just 45 days from the midterm elections, Regan is one of several Cabinet members visiting North Carolina this month to highlight the president’s accomplishments, including visits by 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 takeover of the narrowly divided US Senate and other key offices.
This version has been updated to clarify that Regan was the first Black person to serve as EPA administrator.
Hannah Schoenbaum is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on classified issues. Follow him on Twitter @H_Schoenbaum.
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