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Department of Health and Human Services Announces Launch of Office of Environmental Justice

The Department of Health and Human Services announced the launch of a new Office of Environmental Justice on Tuesday.

The OEJ will focus on “climate related” health issues that effect poor and “marginalized” Americans.

“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,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra in a statement on Tuesday. “Meeting the needs of these communities requires our focused attention. That’s why HHS is establishing the Office of Environmental Justice.”

The new office will sit within the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity at HHS, which President Joe Biden created as part of his Executive Order on “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad.”

“Health is closely connected to the environments where people spend the most time – neighborhoods, workplaces and outdoor spaces,” said Rachel Levine, Assistant Secretary for Health. “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.”

The HHS statement praised the Biden administration for having the “most ambitious environmental justice agenda in history.” It added that the “Biden-Harris Administration is working to ensure that all federal agencies address the disproportionately high and adverse health, environmental, economic, climate, and other impacts on communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.”

According to Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, violations of environmental laws prompting pollution and climate change disproportionately harm “communities of color, indigenous communities, and low-income communities.”

“Although violations of our environmental laws can happen anywhere, communities of color, indigenous communities, and low-income communities often bear the brunt of the harm caused by environmental crime, pollution, and climate change,” said Attorney General Garland in a statement earlier this month. “For far too long, these communities have faced barriers to accessing the justice they deserve. The Office of Environmental Justice will serve as the central hub for our efforts to advance our comprehensive environmental justice enforcement strategy. We will prioritize the cases that will have the greatest impact on the communities most overburdened by environmental harm.”

The OEJ is seeking public comment on a draft outline to further the development of the 2022 HHS Environmental Justice Strategy and Implementation Plan.

“The plan will identify priority actions and strategies to best address environmental injustices and health inequities for people of color and disadvantaged, vulnerable, low-income, marginalized, and indigenous populations,” HHS said in their announcement.

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