President Joe Biden has put a spotlight on environmental justice like no president before him, and that’s good news for Regina Strong.
“I feel like environmental justice is having a moment,” Strong told Great Lakes Now last week. She was referring to a recent indication that U.S. EPA Administrator Michael Regan may be willing to engage more than his predecessors with state and local governments on issues important to communities.
Strong is Michigan’s Environmental Justice Public Advocate and was appointed to the position in April 2019, based on an executive order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. She works under Liesl Clark, director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.
Strong said she finds it “refreshing” to now have an EPA administrator who is interested in communities. While there are still boundaries between state agencies and the EPA, she’s pleased at the opportunity for synergy between Michigan and the federal government.
Great Lakes Now recently spoke with Strong on a range of issues including accomplishments in her first two years, frustrations that EJ advocates and communities have with EGLE, working with the Biden administration and Michigan’s upcoming environmental justice conference this week.
Integration, outcomes and a high-profile conference
Strong said the priority in her first two years “has been creating a framework to facilitate integration of an equity lens into how we do what we do. It is imperative that we are intentional about addressing negative impacts on EJ communities.”
It has been critical to work across departments and within EGLE to educate staff and provide the necessary tools, she said. And staff has been receptive to the initiative, but they want guidance on implementation, and the process was slowed when COVID-19 arrived in March 2020.
Great Lakes Now asked Strong to address a common complaint among EJ advocates and communities, not only in Michigan but everywhere, that agencies like EGLE, advocates say, are too focused on process – studies, measuring and monitoring – and less so on outcomes that bring real change to impacted communities.
The criticism is fair, Strong said.
“Government is process oriented and data driven while advocacy is about impact,” Strong said. “Fixing the impact with the processes that are available is the crux of my work.”
The challenge, she said, “is to move the needle on impact within a government system that is bound by procedures, regulations and laws.”
This week Michigan hosts an environmental justice conference with hopes of addressing those barriers to progress.
Michigan Gov. Whitmer and U.S. EPA Administrator Michael Regan will deliver keynote speeches bringing the gravitas of their offices to environmental justice. Brenda Mallory, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality will speak representing the White House and President Biden.
Great Lakes Now asked Strong what Michigan wants from the conference, given the executive status of the top three speakers.
“Michigan wants to have dialogue around environmental justice that has not previously taken place in Michigan,” Strong said. The Biden administration is sending a strong message on how we address the challenges that communities face so it’s important to have dialogue with them, according to Strong.
Strong said Michigan “absolutely” has a role in helping President Biden implement his environmental justice plan. Michigan has an opportunity to lead the way in how we look at EJ. In the governor’s 2019 executive order on environmental justice, the intent was for Michigan to become a national leader, according to Strong.
A component of the conference will be a town hall where individual residents of environmental justice communities, not just advocacy groups, will be able to have their concerns heard, Strong said.
Many of President Biden’s environmental justice initiatives like guaranteeing drinking water for all and replacing lead pipes that deliver water to homes exist in blueprint form and will require passage by Congress. The administration hopes to see congressional action this summer.
The conference, titled Rebuilding Trust, Reimagining Justice and Removing Barriers, runs virtually May 18-20. Information on the speakers and agenda can be found here.
The conference is free and open to the public, but registration is required.
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Featured image: Regina Strong (Photo courtesy of Michigan EGLE)