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EPA creates new office to advance environmental justice initiatives

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

There is a new office in the Environmental Protection Agency dedicated to environmental justice and civil rights. EPA Administrator Michael Regan says the office is needed to elevate the fight for often poor, overlooked communities of color. He announced its launch in Warren County, N.C. It's the birthplace of the environmental justice movement. Leoneda Inge of member station WUNC reports.

LEONEDA INGE, BYLINE: It's been 40 years since a small, Black, rural community stood up and laid down in the middle of the road to stop trucks from dumping PCB-contaminated dirt in their landfill.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The protesters were told not to block the trucks. They are now lying in the streets, now blocking one truck moving on to the landfill. They're refusing an order to move, and they are being arrested one by one.

INGE: In September 1982, the first group of Warren County residents would meet at Coley Springs Missionary Baptist Church and walk the 2 miles to the landfill to try to stop the dump trucks. The story has been told several times in documentaries and on PBS.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We will not allow Warren County to become a dump site.

INGE: Dollie Burwell was a wife and a working mother in her 30s back then. Burwell was arrested at least five times for protesting the environmental injustice. She said it was clear her community was targeted because it was Black, poor and politically powerless. Today, Burwell is 74 years old and is often called the mother of the environmental justice movement. She recently retraced her steps to the landfill.

DOLLIE BURWELL: I was not trying to create a movement. It really wasn't. And - but to see, 40 years later, young people still fighting for environmental justice - I'm good to go now.

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MICHAEL REGAN: I could not be prouder to announce that today, EPA is creating a new national office charged with advancing environmental justice and external civil rights.

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INGE: EPA Administrator Michael Regan told the crowd in Warren County the new office will have more than 200 people and equal the EPA offices of air and water. The new office will also distribute $3 billion in block grant money to communities Regan said have continued to fight and make a fuss.

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REGAN: We are finally ensuring that communities who have long borne the burden of pollution see, breathe and feel the benefits of the federal government's investments. It's about changing how our government works and who it works for.

INGE: Environmental justice activists from across the country were on hand to hear Regan's words, including Ben Chavis. The civil rights leader from North Carolina coined the term environmental racism and was instrumental in the Warren County protests.

BEN CHAVIS: Actually, it goes a step beyond what I expected because, you know, one of the definitions of environmental racism was, in the past, that communities of color have been excluded at the higher levels of environmental policy. So this is welcome news.

INGE: And with this announcement, Chavis says it's clear the government is finally listening. For NPR News, I'm Leoneda Inge. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She explores modern and historical constructs to tell stories of poverty and wealth, health and food culture, education and racial identity. Leoneda is also co-host of the podcast Tested, allowing for even more in-depth storytelling on those topics.
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