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Newly appointed Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland has pledged to address the concerns of U.S. communities that have disproportionately suffered from pollution and environmental degradation. In her role as the primary steward of America’s public lands, Haaland promised last week to incorporate diverse perspectives and prioritize environmental justice across the agencies of the Department of the Interior. In a secretarial order announced on Friday, the secretary said that these approaches would be integral to the department’s renewed focus on climate change.
In an interview with Grist ahead of the announcement last week, Haaland, who is the first Native American in U.S. history to serve as a cabinet secretary, said that her approach is part of President Joe Biden’s broader goal to ensure that the federal government works to address environmental justice every day. Haaland said that part of this is making sure that vulnerable communities experiencing environmental disparities are heard and helped.
“For generations we’ve put off the transition to clean energy, and now we face a climate crisis,” Haaland, a 35th generation New Mexican and member of the Pueblo of Laguna, told Grist. “It has fallen on those communities: communities of color, poor communities. You can bet that I’m going to do everything I can to help those communities to have an opportunity to build back better.”
The Department of the Interior oversees the Bureau of Indian Education as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and their work intersects with the lives and interests of about 1.9 million Indigenous peoples and 574 federally recognized tribes across the country.
Alongside issuing the new secretarial order, Haaland also revoked a series of orders issued under the Trump Administration. Among the dozen orders revoked are an order canceling an Obama-era federal coal leasing moratorium, an order to promote development of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, and an order that established an executive committee to expedite energy-related permitting. She said that these previous orders are inconsistent with the Biden administration’s commitment to protect public health, conserve the environment and wildlife, and elevate science.
“Those previous orders unfairly tilted the balance of public land and ocean management toward extractive uses without regard for climate change, equity, or community engagement,” Haaland said during a video announcement.
As a U.S. representative from New Mexico, a position where she also made history as one of the first Native American women elected to Congress, Haaland likewise prioritized environmental justice, conservation, and climate change. In the House of Representatives, where she served as vice chair of the Committee on Natural Resources and chair of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, she co-sponsored the 2020 Environmental Justice for All Act, which was recently re-introduced in Congress.
Last year, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Haaland argued for the need to address long-standing health disparities in communities of color that are caused by exposure to environmental pollution. During a congressional roundtable on environmental justice, economic inequality, and the COVID-19 response in April, she noted that pollution from uranium mining has contributed to underlying health conditions such as respiratory illnesses, which in turn has made Native American communities more vulnerable to the coronavirus. At the time, Native Americans represented 47 percent of the positive coronavirus cases in New Mexico, despite being just 11 percent of the state’s population. The underfunding of agencies such as the Indian Health Service, established to provide health care to Native Americans, she said, has led to substandard care and made access to health care a challenge.
“These conditions are mirrored across the other environmental justice communities as we try to deal with this pandemic, and it’s costing our people and their parents and grandparents their lives,” Haaland said during the roundtable.
Haaland told Grist that President Biden has made tribal consultation a priority in his administration — and not just with the Bureau of Indian Affairs under the Department of the Interior, but across all federal agencies. She said that as the pandemic exposed disparities such as the lack of access to clean water within the Navajo Nation, it also made clear that only a cross-agency approach could begin to improve conditions in disadvantaged communities.
“I’m happy and grateful that that is our charge: to make sure that the folks who are suffering those environmental injustices have an opportunity to talk about it and be heard,” said Haaland.