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North Carolina Joins Growing List of U.S. Environmental Justice Policy Proponents

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At the end of October, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper issued Executive Order No. 292, which reestablishes the Secretary of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board (EJ Board) as the Governor’s Environmental Justice Advisory Council (EJA Council), originally established by the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Michael Regan, who previously served as North Carolina’s DEQ Secretary.

In a “whole of government” approach to policymaking, EO 292 also directs equity-promoting actions that reflect the needs communicated by local communities overburdened by environmental and public-health hazards and directs cabinet agencies to develop environmental justice goals with measurable outcomes. EO 292 augments Gov. Cooper’s Executive Order No. 246 (“North Carolina’s Transformation to a Clean, Equitable Economy”), issued in January 2022, which called for the state to take various climate-change-related actions to improve the health of North Carolina communities overburdened by environmental hazards. 

 In addition to reestablishing the DEQ’s EJ Board as the governor’s EJA Council and directing all facets of state government to make environmental justice considerations in policymaking, EO 292 directs the North Carolina Department of Information Technology to build an “Environmental Justice Hub” that would provide educational resources and an environmental justice mapping tool,  as well as directs the governor’s EJA Council to work with academics to conduct cumulative-impact research and potential solutions to address such impacts. EO 292 also explicitly provides a definition of environmental justice as, “just treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of income, race, color, national origin, or Tribal affiliation, in agency policies and programming that affect human health, well-being, quality of life, and the environment,” for the purposes of: i) protecting such overburdened groups from disproportionate adverse effects resulting from “climate change, the cumulative impacts of environmental and other burdens, and the legacy or racism or other structural or systemic barriers”; and ii) granting equitable access to a healthy and sustainable environment in which to live. 

In a press release announcing EO 292, the chair of the reconstituted EJ Board, Dr. James Johnson Jr., explained that EO 292 would, in particular, promote the health of North Carolinians of color and low-wealth North Carolinians, demographics disproportionately impacted by pollution, effects of climate change, and other environmental and land-use hazards. Johnson went on to highlight the potential practical and financial benefits of North Carolina’s latest environmental justice initiative in predicting: “Successfully executed, Executive Order 292 and the programmatic initiatives of the Governor’s Advisory Council will go a long way toward ensuring the future attractiveness of the state as a place to live and do business.” 

By prioritizing environmental justice issues at the state level, North Carolina joins a growing list of states – such as New Jersey (covered by ELM here and here), New York (also covered by ELM), and Maryland – that have enacted environmental justice legislation or executive initiatives, as well as the Biden Administration on the federal level, which has regularly demonstrated its commitment to advancing environmental justice through executive orders (covered by ELM here) and agency decision-making and policy (covered by ELM in various contexts, such as public records access, cumulative impact assessments, and the creation of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice & External Civil Rights).