Michael Regan, administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, kicked off a five-day “Journey to Justice” tour of the Southern United States on Monday.
The trip is meant to highlight communities that have long suffered from environmental racism, an issue President Joe Biden hopes to address, in part, with funding from his $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill.
The cities on Regan’s itinerary were hand-picked to show the detriment of inaction when it comes to pollution, systemic inequities and lack of resources.
A poignant example of the issue came during Regan’s visit to Jackson, Mississippi, on Monday: Health officials issued a citywide boil notice, advising residents to take caution and boil water before use, hours after Regan met with community leaders about the city’s unreliable water system.
Students at Wilkins Elementary School had already been moved to another location due to low water pressure by the time Regan visited Monday morning.
Regan used the opportunity to tout Biden’s recently-signed infrastructure bill, which provides $50 billion towards modernizing water infrastructure. Of that figure, more than $400 million will go to the state of Mississippi, according to the White House.
“This is core to why the president advocated so much for these infrastructure dollars,” Regan said during his visit. “We’ve known for a long period of time that communities all across the country are facing these challenges. As a father of an 8-year-old, it’s very frustrating to see.”
In a video message released Tuesday, Regan stressed that funds from the infrastructure bill will "replace lead pipes all across America and clean up long-standing pollution."
Tuesday took Regan across state lines first to New Orleans, where he met with activists from the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice to “discuss the impact of pollution, severe weather and hear directly from communities suffering,” the organization said on social media.
Regan also visited St. James and St. John the Baptist Parishes in Louisiana — the latter of which has an elevated risk of cancer due to pollutants from the nearby Denka plant, according to the 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment.
While recent EPA data has shown an overall downward trend in chloroprene emissions over the past 18 months, local residents offered Regan a tour of an elementary school near the plant that many are concerned still pose health risks to students. Officials from the Louisiana Department of Health say they have “no reason that children cannot attend the school.”
St. John the Baptist Parish is also a predominantly (58%) Black community, and Regan said it was an ideal location to touch on environmental justice, tweeting in part: “...today we’ll see why it’s important to me — personally and professionally — and why it’s at the center of our work at [EPA].”
The trip will see Regan continue across Louisiana and Texas to “join roundtable discussions to hear directly from residents, advocates, and stakeholders, tour neighborhoods severely affected by pollution, and meet with environmental justice activists and community leaders to discuss solutions to these deep-rooted problems,” the White House wrote in a November release.
Regan is set to help the Biden administration oversee the distribution of funds from the bipartisan infrastructure bill, formally known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which will set into motion the flow of billions of dollars to states and localities to improve bridges and roads, install electric vehicle charging stations, expand railways, replace lead pipes, expand broadband and other public works projects.
On Monday, the White House revealed the Infrastructure Implementation Task Force, which will be co-chaired by former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu and National Economic Council Director Brian Deese. Comprising the rest of the council will be:
- Department of Transportation, Secretary Pete Buttigieg
- Department of Interior, Secretary Deb Haaland
- Department of Energy, Secretary Jennifer Granholm
- Department of Commerce, Secretary Gina Raimondo
- Environmental Protection Agency, Administrator Michael Regan
- Department of Agriculture, Secretary Tom Vilsack
- Department of Labor, Secretary Martin Walsh
- Office of Personnel Management, Director Kiran Ahuja
"This Task Force will be committed to break down barriers and drive implementation of infrastructure investments across all levels of government to realize the President’s vision of rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure and positioning the U.S. to compete and win in the 21st century," the White House wrote in a statement.
Spectrum News' Austin Landis and Justin Tasolides contributed to this report.