WARRENTON, N.C. (AP) — Forty years after a predominantly Black community in Warren County, North Carolina, rallied against hosting a hazardous waste landfill, President 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.
Joined by civil rights leaders and participants from the 1982 protests, Michael Regan, the first Black 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, land and water, and cementing its principles in a way that will outlive the Biden administration.
North Carolina in 1978 designated Warren County, a small, 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 communities.