The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on May 31 launched a new Office of Environmental Justice, the latest in a series of Biden administration policies and bureaucratic entities centered on environmental justice, environmental racism, equity, and related concerns.
“Millions in the U.S. are at risk of poor health because they live, work, play, learn, and grow in or near areas of excessive pollution and other environmental hazards. The Office of Environmental Justice is an important avenue through which their well-being and quality of life are receiving our full attention,” Adm. Rachel Levine, assistant secretary for health, stated in a press release announcing the new office.
Xavier Becerra, HHS secretary, stated in the same press release, “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.”
The new office will fall under the authority of HHS’s Office of Climate Change and Health Equity, which was also established by the Biden administration through Executive Order 14008.
The order includes the term “environmental justice” 24 times, which is foundational to the new governmental bodies and programs it details.
Notably, it established several other bodies, including the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council, which it tasked with consulting “local environmental justice leaders” to develop an environmental justice strategy; the Office of Environmental Justice, under the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice; and a White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which already has an Office of Environmental Justice.
The EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice grew out of the Office of Environmental Equity, which was established in 1992 under the George H.W. Bush administration against the backdrop of civil rights activism, prompted by the 1987 report “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States.”
That report was authored by Dr. Benjamin Chavis, a United Church of Christ (UCC) minister who later converted to the Nation of Islam and adopted the name Dr. Benjamin Chavis Muhammad. Chavis also worked with the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan, directing the Million Man March in 1995.
In 1991, the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, also led by the UCC, outlined what were described as 17 principles of environmental justice.
The stated motivations for establishing those principles included “[securing] our political, economic and cultural liberation that has been denied for over 500 years of colonization and oppression.”
Given the term’s origins in left-wing activism, the meaning and political neutrality of “environmental justice” have sometimes been a matter of contention.
One definition used by the EPA describes 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 and regulations.”
The Ecological Society of America has listed that language alongside what it calls “a broader definition,” in which environmental justice is seen “both as a field of study and a social movement that seeks to address the unequal distribution of environmental benefits and harms, and asks whether procedures and impacts of environmental decision-making are fair to the people they affect.”
That definition comes from Bunyan Bryant, professor emeritus for environmental justice at the University of Michigan.
In other writing, Bryant has claimed that humans have been led “to wreak destruction upon the Earth and upon each other” thanks to “the destructive power of market forces.”
Following HHS’s announcement, some took to social media to celebrate.
“We need our federal government to protect our rights against the impacts of environmental injustice, and this office will be a partner to this critical work,” Dr. Gaurab Basu, a health equity fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, wrote in a tweet.
Basu’s recent publications include the editorial “COVID-19 and Climate Change: Crises of Structural Racism,” an article for the Journal of Climate Change and Health co-authored by, among others, the environmentalist Bill McKibben.
“For the climate crisis, we must be skeptical of solutions that rely solely upon innovation and individualism,” the article states, later asserting that “we must view advocacy and collective action as a means to bring about equitable health outcomes.”
Like Bryant and others in the environmental justice movement, Basu has faulted capitalism for what he sees as ubiquitous, systemic problems afflicting the natural environment of the United States.
“We’ve got to think about, you know, how we reform capitalism, because, you know, I think in a lot of ways, racism and capitalism have been the drivers that have allowed us to get to this place,” Basu told podcast host Derek Wolfe.
Basu also recommended that Wolfe’s listeners read “anything by Bill McKibben.”
Others have expressed skepticism about the new HHS office.
“The reality is that so-called environmental justice or “environmental racism” is a total activist-run hoax,” Steve Milloy, proprietor of JunkScience.com, told The Epoch Times.
“What these communities need are jobs, not the environmental justice hoax, which will have the perverse effect of keeping high-paying employers away from their communities and locking them in perpetual poverty.”
The Epoch Times has reached out to HHS seeking more information on the office, including who will run it and how many people it will employ.
The Epoch Times has also reached out to the director of EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, Matthew Tejada.