Keynote comes ahead of the one-year anniversary of President Biden’s Executive Order on Revitalizing Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All

WASHINGTON White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory outlined the Biden-Harris Administration’s progress advancing a whole-of-government effort to confront longstanding environmental injustices and inequities at the National Environmental Justice Conference and Training Program. The keynote address comes ahead of the first anniversary of President Biden’s Executive Order on Revitalizing Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All. Signed on April 21, 2023 by President Biden, the executive order further embeds environmental justice into the work of federal agencies to achieve real, measurable progress that communities can count on. 

Chair Mallory’s full remarks as prepared for delivery are below: 

Thank you, Jalonne [White-Newsome] – affectionately known as Dr. J – for that kind introduction. We are so lucky to have you serving as the first Federal Chief Environmental Justice Officer at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. 

Good morning, everyone – it is great to be in the room with so many passionate and dedicated environmental justice leaders and federal agency partners. 

For over 15 years, the National Environmental Justice Conference has brought together community members, academics, environmental justice practitioners, and officials from all levels of government to learn from one another, share best practices, and strategize about how to advance environmental justice for all.

And this year is no different. Looking around this room, I see an inclusive, diverse, and intergenerational movement of people devoted to environmental justice.

But before we look forward, I want to honor the people and hard work that brought us to this moment. 

The long road that led us here is filled with fearless heroes – like the participants of the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit – who worked tirelessly to make environmental justice a central issue of our time and a top priority for the Biden-Harris Administration. 

We would not be here without those leaders and countless others who connected the dots between environmental hazards and our health and well-being. Those who made it their life’s work to advocate for communities who were left behind – communities that bore the burdens of poisonous air, contaminated water, and an unhealthy environment. 

The struggles of those early days, like in many justice movements, were often about ringing the alarm. That meant showing the country the injustices that communities face and demanding a more just, equitable, and healthy future for all.  

From local community meetings to the nation’s capital, the environmental justice movement includes and has advocated for those who do not always have the means or time to travel or the information needed to advocate for themselves. That includes mothers who work two jobs to put food on the table and live in areas where their children are exposed to toxic chemicals in their water; families who live downwind from chemical plants and contaminated sites; and, elders who are at risk of heat exhaustion because their neighborhoods are hotter than the norm due to underinvestment in green space. 

Today the climate crisis is exacerbating these problems.

I look at the work we are doing to advance our shared commitment to environmental justice as if we are building a house together. For many decades, the elders and leaders of the environmental justice movement laid the groundwork – charting the path that President Biden has recognized and built upon. 

Since day one, President Biden and Vice President Harris have been leading the most ambitious environmental justice and climate change agenda in history grounded in their core belief that every person deserves access to clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment. 

Environmental justice is built into the first executive orders President Biden signed. He recognized that in the past, the federal government failed to safeguard the most basic protections for every community in this country. And he believes that we have a responsibility to address those wrongs.

Guided by the President’s first executive orders, our team at CEQ and our partners across the federal government have been working since day one to create the conditions needed to lay the foundation for this house that we are building together. 

The President knew that the foundation was the start – the house needs walls, rooms, and a roof. So, the President promised to modernize and improve how the federal government confronts environmental injustice – a promise he made following meaningful engagement with communities. And he did just that. 

In a few days, now 30 years after President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, we will mark the one-year anniversary of President Biden’s Executive Order on Revitalizing Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All. 

In the White House Rose Garden, the President used the power of his pen to further embed environmental justice within the federal government. 

His action was the next phase of the building plan.

The President’s executive order, directs federal agencies to better protect communities from pollution and environmental harms; strengthens engagement with communities and mobilizes federal agencies to confront existing and legacy barriers and injustices; promotes the latest science, data, and research, including on cumulative impacts; and increases accountability and transparency in federal environmental justice policy.  

And in the year since that beautiful day in the Rose Garden, we have taken important steps to advance his vision and lay a solid foundation. 

A key component of President Biden’s commitment to environmental justice is to ensure 40 percent of the overall benefits of federal climate, clean energy, and other investments flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized by underinvestment and overburdened by pollution. 

You all are familiar with the Justice40 Initiative.

Since the signing of the executive order, we expanded programs covered by the Justice40 Initiative. Now, more than 500 programs across 19 federal agencies are being transformed, and agencies are reimagining the way government delivers benefits like fresher air, cleaner energy, good-paying jobs, and clean water to communities. 

The President’s Investing in America agenda is putting historic resources on the ground through programs covered by the Justice40 Initiative. 

I have seen it. 

In Wisconsin, the President announced over $3 billion for the Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods Grant program that will reconnect and reinvigorate communities across the country – communities that were divided by transportation infrastructure decades ago and have long been overlooked.

I saw how that funding will make a difference in Toledo, Ohio when I visited a site that received $28.5 million to reconnect residents of the historic east side with the opportunities, amenities, and natural spaces of the downtown riverfront.

In Connecticut, I spent time with students and teachers whose air will be cleaner because of funding for clean school buses. 

In Detroit, I met with a family who can now run clean, safe water from their tap after their lead pipes were replaced.

In South Carolina, I spoke with community members who live near a contaminated site that now has Superfund funding to become a safe gathering place.

In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, I saw trees that had been destroyed in an extreme wind storm that are being replaced with new trees that will provide shade from extreme heat and create more accessible green space.

These are just a few examples of how we are moving the needle toward justice and making real, positive change communities can count on. This foundation is bolstered by the President’s vision of a whole-of-government approach to environmental justice. 

To help guide that approach and as directed by the President’s executive order, we established the first White House Office of Environmental Justice. The President appointed Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome to lead that team as the first Federal Chief Environmental Justice Officer.

And it is not just us – agencies across the federal government are dedicating staff in their offices and bureaus to focus on delivering environmental justice. 

The President’s executive order is also forward-looking and tasks federal agencies to better protect communities from pollution and environmental harms.

When we look out for impacted communities across the government, we are looking out for our children – for current and future generations to help end the cycle of environmental injustice. 

Though that takes many forms, our Administration has worked diligently to finalize strong regulations and direct funding in a way that will have far reaching impacts in every corner of the country.  

So communities will have clean air to breathe, EPA finalized stronger clean air standards for chemical plants. And to address another toxic substance linked to cancer, we moved ahead on a historic ban on ongoing uses of asbestos. 

So every person in this country has clean water, we are replacing lead pipes within ten years and recently set the first national standard to address PFAS in drinking water. 

We are doing all of this with the backing of funding through President Biden’s Investing in America agenda to support communities as they undertake this work, so no one has to worry about getting poisoned from their tap water.

And to help clean up and provide everyone with healthy lands on which to live, we are unleashing historic funding to clean up abandoned oil and gas wells, orphaned coal mines, and contaminated sites with hazardous waste known as Superfund sites.

These are just a few examples of how the Biden-Harris Administration is applying a variety of tools from different federal agencies and the White House that will make a significant difference to address the combined or cumulative impacts some communities are facing. 

I want to take a step back and share an example of what these actions mean for communities.

In Oakdale, Minnesota, a chemical plant dumped PFAS-containing waste for decades, contaminating the community’s drinking water. Cancer was found to be a far more likely cause of death in children there than in neighboring communities.

Among those impacted by cancer was Amara Strande, who spent her final months calling for action. After years of battling tumors and more than 20 surgeries, Amara passed away one year ago this month – just before her 21st birthday.

There are countless others who have lost their lives to environmental injustice.  

The steps we have taken set in motion a future where no child, or community – no family, no parent – experiences the devastation that Oakdale or any other community has seen.

This is the frame that will support environmental justice into the future. 

And as we continue this important work, we are connecting with communities on the ground. Because we need people to know that we have their back and to create opportunities to learn from them. 

On the same day that the President signed his new environmental justice Executive Order, we launched the White House Campaign for Environmental Justice. Our Office of Environmental Justice continues to lead that effort alongside our federal agency partners. 

Last year CEQ joined convenings across the U.S. – from Los Angeles, California, and Reno, Nevada; to Chicago, Illinois, and Raleigh, North Carolina; to New Orleans, Louisiana – and beyond.  

The things we learn from communities on the frontlines inform our policies and programming across the Administration.  

We heard that local organizations and non-profits and partners needed more support in the form of grant writing, capacity building, and navigating the federal grant process. 

So, we got to work implementing and boosting funding and resources for the Thriving Communities Network, the Rural Partners Network, and the Technical Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers Program, or TCTACs as most people know them. 

These programs and networks provide training and other assistance to build capacity for navigating federal grant application systems, developing strong grant proposals, and effectively managing grant funding. 

It was amazing to see a community event connecting communities to federal resources while in South Carolina last month with, Mr. Harold Mitchell, an immense force of good who is doing great work creating partnerships and increasing access to opportunity on the ground. 

In South Carolina, we joined hundreds of community leaders as they met with federal agencies implementing programs that provide vital resources through the Justice40 Initiative. Federal agencies presented tools and resources to help people grasp the full potential of the environmental justice progress we seek.

As many of you know, Mr. Mitchell is a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council – which is made up of members from communities across the country. The council is advising us on how to shape our current and future environmental justice work. 

Their experience and wisdom help us understand how to build the strongest, most effective effort on environmental justice – and also where the pressure points are so the foundation will remain firm to sustain vital work for generations to come. 

We have spent the last three years laying the foundation for success at the ground level. And just like the foundation of a house, the progress we have made is critical for the structure in the long term. Without this foundation, the walls would fall. It takes a village – including you all – to build and maintain this house, too. 

As we move forward to implement the President’s executive order, each federal agency is required to incorporate environmental justice strategic planning into each of their unique missions – catalyzing a new era of transparency, consistency, and accountability for environmental justice. We look forward to continuing to share more as these efforts progress.

But already, the impacts that we seek are beginning to take form. And like a house – clean school buses, stronger protections, and historic investments in communities with environmental justice concerns – we are keeping people safe and making communities stronger in the face of a changing climate. 

The walls are going up on the foundation we set with the Justice40 Initiative, environmental justice strategic planning, technical assistance resources, and the partnerships we have with all of you.

This is a massive undertaking that has never been done before. But as the President says, “We can accomplish anything if we do it together.”

In the past year since the President signed his Executive Order on Revitalizing Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All, we set a foundation that can stand the test of time and support vital work to advance the historic environmental justice vision and goals President Biden has established within the federal government. 

While we continue our work, we must never lose sight of who we are doing this for. 

The house we are building – across generations – will be the place where we work together to protect people: to keep them warm in the cold, keep them cool in the heat, protect them from the elements, and ensure everyone has access to clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment. This is how we will bring environmental justice to all corners of our nation.

I am looking forward to continuing to build this future alongside all of you. Thank you.

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