Biden administration announces new Office of Environmental Justice within HHS

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra (Photo courtesy of HHS)

The Biden administration announced its plan yesterday to establish a new Office of Environmental Justice, intended to focus on efforts to ensure all communities have access to clean air and water and to ease the effects of disruptive traffic and industry.

“The blunt truth is that many communities across our nation — particularly low-income communities and communities of color — continue to bear the brunt of pollution from industrial development, poor land use decisions, transportation and trade corridors,” said Health and Human Services  Secretary Xavier Becerra in a statement. “Meeting the needs of these communities requires our focused attention. That’s why HHS is establishing the Office of Environmental Justice.”

The HHS announcement follows a similar one from the Justice Department, which on May 5 detailed plans for its Office of Environmental Justice. The Justice Department said this new unit is intended to serve as a central hub for efforts to address violations of laws that have disproportionately affected “communities of color, indigenous communities and low-income communities,” which “often bear the brunt of the harm caused by environmental crime, pollution and climate change.”

On May 12, Glenn Thrush and Lisa Friedman of the New York Times reported on these efforts already underway within the DOJ, “Justice Dept. Tries to Shift Environmental Justice Efforts From Symbolic to Substantive.” David Nakamura and Darryl Fears of the Washington Post on May 5 covered the DOJ’s announcement, “Justice Dept. boosts focus on environmental cases that harm the poor.

Becerra continues quest

For HHS’ Becerra, though, this OEJ work is a kind of his efforts as attorney general of California.

As John Schwartz of the New York Times earlier reported, Becerra in 2018, established an environmental justice bureau. In his 2020 story, “Xavier Becerra Brings Environmental Justice to Forefront,” Schwartz wrote that this bureau was “the first of its kind”

“Its focus: the unequal effect pollution and other forms of environmental damage have on health in the most vulnerable communities. While local officials, understandably, want to promote economic development, the bureau created by Mr. Becerra is saying that environmental justice needs to be part of the equation,” Schwartz wrote.

In the article, Schwartz quotes Arsenio Mataka, an environmental adviser to then Attorney General Becerra, as saying the environmental justice work was not glamorous, but that it could be an important boost for vulnerable communities with little political clout on their own.

These communities tend to be subject to excess pollution and detrimental health effects from increased traffic of major warehouse development. So even sending a letter can have an effect, Mataka said in the New York Times story, “If you are a mayor or local official, if you get a letter from the attorney general, it’s a big deal.”

Mataka now serves as a senior adviser in HHS’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health. He is the official who signed an official request for information that HHS put out in April, seeking public feedback on addressing environmental justice issues. Requests for information often serve as broad initial outlines of plans a presidential administration would like to carry out. They can also highlight issues they intend to focus on.

“For years studies have demonstrated that people of color and disadvantaged, vulnerable, low-income, marginalized, and indigenous populations are disproportionately burdened by environmental hazards,” HHS said in the April request for information.

“These populations are often exposed to unhealthy land uses, poor air and water quality, dilapidated housing, lead exposure, and other environmental threats that drive health disparities,” HHS added in the document. “Many of these communities are underserved and surrounded by social inequities such as job insecurity, underemployment, linguistic isolation, underperforming schools, noise, crowded homes, lack of access to healthy foods and transportation, and limitations on access to and participation in the decision-making processes.”

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