News Brief

Biden Firms Up His Environmental Justice Agenda

An Earth Day executive order looks to protect communities burdened by pollution. The details hint at the scale of change that’s needed.

To fulfill our Nation’s promises of justice, liberty, and equality, every person must have clean air to breathe; clean water to drink; safe and healthy foods to eat; and an environment that is healthy, sustainable, climate-resilient, and free from harmful pollution and chemical exposure.

– President Joe Biden, Executive Order 14096 on Revitalizing Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All

 a Latino man in a red shirt and black beret speaks into a microphone on a tour bus while passengers listen.

Juan Parras, director of the environmental justice group T.E.J.A.S., speaks to a busload of passengers on the Justice40ward “toxic tour.” According to WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Houston ranks first in the nation for concentrations of mercury, formaldehyde, benzene, 1-3 butadiene, and other toxic chemicals in the air, "leading to sickness ranging from asthma to cancer to infertility."

Photo: Buzz McBride, courtesy of WE ACT for Environmental Justice
An explicit and multilayered commitment to environmental justice has permeated President Biden’s administration since he took office. Most recently, Biden signed Executive Order 14096, “Revitalizing Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All.” This order builds on the climate order Biden signed on Inauguration Day as well as a Clinton-era move. It also adds to other promises Biden has made, through Justice40, which directs at least 40% of certain federal benefits toward disadvantaged communities.

This latest action has a few key provisions designed to help communities combat legacy pollution and environmental devastation. It also aims to repair the data gaps and community engagement failures that have historically made injustices harder to perceive, quantify, and act upon. The order:

  • Requires timely notification of toxic releases and rapid follow-up with local citizens
  • Establishes a White House Office of Environmental Justice and the position of chief environmental justice officer
  • Establishes an Environmental Justice Interagency Council
  • Directs each federal agency to designate an environmental justice officer, create an environmental justice strategic plan, and follow up within two years with a self-assessment
  • Orders creation of an environmental justice subcommittee on the National Science and Technology Council, which is charged with identifying data gaps and making recommendations about research methods, community engagement strategies, and data transparency

There’s quite a bit packed into the duties of this subcommittee, but certain things stand out.

One is the mention of the cumulative impacts some communities endure from exposure to multiple environmental and health burdens, according to Dana Johnson, senior director of strategy and federal policy at the advocacy organization WE ACT for Environmental Justice. As the government reviews projects, Johnson explained, this added criterion will take what communities are already suffering into account. “The part of the executive order requiring them to look at the cumulative impact or effect of bringing an additional facility—and even looking at the renewal process for an existing plant—will be critically important,” she told BuildingGreen.

Another big change is the promise of greater inclusion, not only through more robust community engagement around rule-making, permitting, and other government activities, but also through recognition of participatory science—when members of the public work with scientists to help formulate research questions, gather data, or interpret results.

Johnson has been raising awareness of Justice40 and other funding opportunities in communities around the country through the Justice40rward tour and has been inspired by how ready people are to participate.

“We want people on the ground to be aware of” the administration’s promises, Johnson noted. Community members have developed many of their own grassroots solutions to legacy pollution and the threat of climate change, she added, but they haven’t been able to fund them.

Johnson believes Justice40 could change that—provided people know the money is out there. “We want the heart of environmental justice to come to fruition in this process—and that is that people get to decide for themselves.”

More on environmental justice

No More Red Lines: Undoing Our Legacy of Urban Segregation

“Tree Equity” Fund Brings Green to Urban Streetscapes

IRA Tax Breaks May Reinforce Inequities, So We Need to Help

$100 Million Available from EPA for Environmental Justice Work

EPA’s New Environmental Justice Arm to Disburse $3 Billion

For more information:

Federal Register


Published June 12, 2023

Melton, P. (2023, May 18). Biden Firms Up His Environmental Justice Agenda. Retrieved from

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