The Department of Health and Human Services announced on Tuesday it is establishing an Office of Environmental Justice, putting a spotlight on environmental inequities in health.
The new office will be led by interim director Sharunda Buchanan, a former official at the Centers for Disease Control specializing in environmental health issues like lead exposure.
While there are other federal offices, including the White House Council on Environmental Quality, that focus on environmental justice, Buchanan told CNN she hopes the HHS office will bring new resources to communities, especially low incomes communities and communities of color dealing with elevated lead exposure or inadequate waste water treatment.
“My goal for this office is to serve as a resource for communities, I want to work alongside these communities,” Buchanan told CNN in an interview Tuesday. “I like to say that environmental justice and health equity are inextricably linked. If you find an environmental justice issue, you’re going to inevitably find a health issue.”
The office will be responsible for creating and implementing a department-wide strategy on environmental justice and health and taking the lead on annual HHS environmental justice reports, among other tasks.
In addition to Buchanan, the new office is staffed with three detailees from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other offices in HHS.
“We believe this will be a longstanding office,” Buchanan said. “They are already ready and willing and raring to go.”
In a statement, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said many communities across the country “continue to bear the brunt of pollution from industrial development, poor land use decisions, transportation, and trade corridors” and that meeting their needs “requires our focused attention.”
Environmental justice has been a high priority for the Biden administration. Early in his term, President Joe Biden pledged 40% of federal funds for climate and clean energy initiatives would be prioritized for underserved communities, and CEQ announced in February 29% of the US population was eligible for those funds.
Buchanan told CNN Tuesday she was “elated” to be leading the office.
“I am so passionate about this work; this is actually my life’s work,” she said. “My goal for this office is to bring solutions to communities.”