Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works committee on Feb. 3.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works committee on Feb. 3. Caroline Brehman / Pool via AP

EPA Administrator Instructs Staff to Prioritize Environmental Justice

The directive furthers several executive orders and memos from President Biden. 

The new head of the Environmental Protection Agency directed all offices on Wednesday to incorporate environmental justice into all of their plans and actions.

The EPA defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” Michael Regan, who was confirmed as EPA administrator on March 10, issued the directive to further President Biden’s day one executive order on using the power of the federal government to promote racial equity and support underserved communities. 

“Too many communities whose residents are predominantly of color, Indigenous, or low-income continue to suffer from disproportionately high pollution levels and the resulting adverse health and environmental impacts,” said Regan in a message to agency staff, shared in a press release. “We must do better. This will be one of my top priorities as administrator, and I expect it to be one of yours as well.”

Specifically, he directed the EPA’s offices to: 

  • Strengthen enforcement of violations of civil rights and environmental laws in areas that have been encumbered by pollution; 
  • Have more frequent engagements with communities overburdened by pollution and underserved communities that are impacted by the agency’s rulemaking and policies; 
  • In the grants process, prioritize giving direct and indirect benefits to those in underserved areas, to the extent allowed by law (furthering the Biden administration’s Justice40 initiative established in a January 27 executive order that seeks to deliver 40% of the total benefits from certain environmental investments to disadvantaged areas); 
  • Have “regular, meaningful” conversations with Tribal officials when developing policies that will impact Tribal communities, which follows a memo Biden signed on January 26; and,
  • Incorporate environmental justice into all work, such as by “assessing impacts to pollution-burdened, underserved, and Tribal communities in regulatory development processes and to consider regulatory options to maximize benefits to these communities.”

Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, and Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., chairwomen of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and Environment Subcommittee, respectively, applauded the action and said they look forward to working with the EPA and Biden on this issue.

This comes a week after Regan launched a “reset” of the agency’s advisory bodies to “reverse deficiencies caused by decisions made in recent years,” which involved actions during the Trump administration, said a press release. While not explicitly mentioning names, it said “past administration actions hindered the recruitment and retention of members for the Science Advisory Board and the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee.” 

Regan plans to oust more than 40 outside experts appointed to the two panels by Trump, according to The Washington Post. 

Chris Zarba, a 38-year veteran of EPA and former director of the Science Advisory Board, said the move was “absolutely warranted” in a statement on March 31, through the Environmental Protection Network. Under former Trump administration administrators Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler, many of the best individuals were not considered for the committees and those who were “did not accurately represent mainstream science.”

However, the move provoked concerns from some Republican lawmakers. 

“The midterm firing of science advisory board members within the first months of a new administration demonstrates a deeply troubling partisan political agenda,” Reps. James Comer, R-Ky., ranking member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, and Ralph Norman, R-S.C., ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Environment, wrote to Regan on Wednesday. They asked for a list of documents and information by April 21. 

An EPA spokesperson told Government Executive on Thursday, “We will review the letter and respond through appropriate channels.”

Ahead of Regan’s confirmation, environmental groups and the largest union representing EPA employees expressed optimism that he would restore scientific integrity and trust at the agency, while acknowledging he has a lot of work ahead of him after what happened during the Trump administration.