The Head of the EPA's Environmental Justice Program Has Just Resigned
March 11, 2017
Grist & Inside Climate News & Mustafa Santiago Ali
After 24 years, Mustafa Ali has resigned from his work as the EPA's chief environmental justice enforcer to protest the new administrator's plans to impose deep and damaging cuts for programs designed to protect the poor and minority communities. As a senior adviser and assistant associate administrator, Ali has served under both Democratic and Republican presidents -- but not under Donald Trump.
Trump's Office of Environmental Injustice
(March 9, 2017) -- One of the most important figures in environmental justice just quit Trump's EPA. Mustafa Ali helped to start the EPA's environmental justice office and its environmental equity office in the 1990s. For nearly 25 years, he advocated for poor and minority neighborhoods stricken by pollution. As a senior adviser and assistant associate administrator, Ali served under both Democratic and Republican presidents -- but not under President Donald Trump.
His departure comes amid news that the Trump administration plans to scrap the agency's environmental justice work. The administration's proposed federal budget would slash the EPA's $8 billion budget by a quarter and eliminate numerous programs, including Ali's office.
The Office of Environmental Justice gives small grants to disadvantaged communities, a life-saving program that Trump's budget proposal could soon make disappear.
Ali played a role in President Obama's last major EPA initiative, the EJ 2020 action agenda, a four-year plan to tackle lead poisoning, air pollution, and other problems. He now joins Hip Hop Caucus, a civil rights nonprofit that nurtures grassroots activism through hip-hop music, as a senior vice president.
In his letter of resignation, Ali asked the agency's new administrator, Scott Pruitt, to listen to poor and non-white people and "value their lives." Let's see if Pruitt listens.
Chief Environmental Justice Official at EPA Resigns,
With Plea to Pruitt to Protect Vulnerable Communities
Phil McKenna / Inside Climate News
(March 9, 2017) -- The head of the environmental justice program at the Environmental Protection Agency has stepped down, departing the government with a lengthy letter to Scott Pruitt, the EPA's new administrator, urging him not to kill the agency's programs.
Mustafa Ali, a senior adviser and assistant associate administrator at the agency, worked to alleviate the impact of air, water and industrial pollution on poverty-stricken towns and neighborhoods during nearly a quarter century with the EPA. He helped found the environmental justice office, then the environmental equity office, in 1992, during the presidency of President George H.W. Bush.
Ali leaves the EPA as Pruitt, who took office Feb. 17, prepares to implement deep cuts in the agency's budget and staff. A Trump administration proposal would cut the EPA's $8 billion budget by $2 billion and reduce its roster of 15,000 employees by 20 percent. An internal memo obtained by multiple news outlets on March 1 called for a complete dismantling of the office of environmental justice and elimination of a number of grant programs that address low-income and minority communities. A story in the Oregonian reported that funding for the office would decrease 78 percent, from $6.7 million to $1.5 million.
Justice issues have become an environmental focal point in recent years—most recently in the battle to clean up lead-contaminated water in Flint, Mich., a largely African-American community, and in the fight to stop the nearly completed Dakota Access pipeline just upstream of the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota.
"I think it's going to be one of the major civil rights issues of the 21st century," said Benjamin Wilson, head of the National Environmental Justice Conference and chairman of the law firm Beveridge & Diamond. "It's going to become increasingly not simply local but regional, national and international in scope."
Ali said he has received no indication that the adviser position or his job as assistant associate administrator in the agency's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance will be filled by the Trump administration. EPA officials declined to comment on the positions.
The EPA made strides during the Obama administration to address environmental justice concerns, including incorporating equity into regulatory decision-making, and adopting a long-term strategy in its EJ 2020 Action Agenda. The agency was, however, heavily criticized for not doing enough to address environmental concerns of low-income and minority populations.
Ali said in an interview that he considers the shielding of poor and minority neighborhoods from the effects of pollution a crucial function of the EPA, but that the agency's new leaders have not given "any indication that they are focused or interested in helping those vulnerable communities. My values and priorities seem to be different than our current leadership and because of that I feel that it's best if I take my talents elsewhere."
Still, in his resignation letter, which was devoid of rancor, Ali urged former Oklahoma Attorney General Pruitt, a longtime opponent of EPA regulation, to reconsider proposed cuts to environmental justice programs. "When I hear we are considering making cuts to grant programs like the EJ small grants or Collaborative Problem Solving programs, which have assisted over 1,400 communities, I wonder if our new leadership has had the opportunity to converse with those who need our help the most," Ali wrote. "I strongly encourage you and your team to continue promoting agency efforts to validate these communities' concerns, and value their lives."
Meanwhile, the power that Ali once wielded inside the EPA has been dissipated. His position as senior adviser to the EPA administrator was eliminated in January when Obama's EPA chief Gina McCarthy left, he said.
"I am heartbroken that Mustafa feels that his time of productivity in the agency has passed," McCarthy said in an interview. "He managed the interagency working group on environmental justice," she said, referring to a conclave of federal agencies that met to discuss common concerns. "So when I say we brought actions and strategies to the table, it wasn't just EPA, it was throughout the federal government."
Part of the environmental justice program's strategy was to help leverage its relatively small grants into large programs. The town of Spartanburg, South Carolina, for example, received a $20,000 environmental justice grant to help clean up contaminated industrial sites in the town. Spartanburg ultimately raised more than $270 million from public and private sources and used the recovered land to build housing, a job training facility and health centers.
"You're talking about a community that was devastated and that raised itself up because you had great community members and they had somebody who listened to them at the federal government," McCarthy said. "Mustafa was one of those people. I went to that community. I sat with the mayor. He gave me a key to the city. We were sitting in a community center that had been developed as a result of this small start, where somebody paid attention to that community and it happened to be EPA."
Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance in the Obama administration, cites the town of Tonawanda, New York, to which the EPA gave a small grant to conduct ambient air monitoring. The grant "ultimately led to a criminal case that EPA brought against Tonawanda Coke Corporation for high levels of benzene emissions," Giles said.
Giles said there is no economic justification for killing the justice program. "The money that is involved is not noticeable in the overall scheme of budgets," she said. "The only reason to eliminate it would be to send a message—that they don't care about the needs of the most vulnerable communities."
"We've had both [Republican and Democratic administrations] over time and none of them tried to do anything to destroy what the previous administration had done," Ali said. "Folks are just hoping that this one will wake up and see value in continuing this important work."
Yet Ali sees nothing in Pruitt's background to support that hope. He repeatedly sued the EPA for its efforts to regulate CO2 emissions, mercury and other forms of pollution. "When the administrator was in Oklahoma I do not know of any time that he made environmental justice a priority," Ali said.
Pruitt tweeted last month he was dedicated to working with "stakeholders—industry, farmers, ranchers, business owners—on traditional values of environmental stewardship."
Some of the responses the tweet garnered included: "What about environmental advocates?" "What about...people w/o access to safe water & air? Our children?" And "what about ordinary citizens."
In a February statement, advocacy group We Act for Environmental Justice said of Pruitt: "His record indicates he lacks awareness or concern for communities impacted by asthma and other environmental health-related issues."
Ali, who grew up near a coal-fired power plant in West Virginia, interned in the office of William Reilly, the agency's third administrator, before joining as a staff member in the newly formed office of environmental equity in Nov. 1992. From 2007-2008, Ali worked on Capitol Hill in the office of Congressman John Conyers before returning to the EPA. He proudly boasts that he has worked on environmental justice issues in more than 500 communities.
"His work and the work of the EPA has helped empower people, and whenever we can have a clear articulation of the issues, it's amazing the common ground that can be reached by people on opposing sides," Wilson said. "But if we never have that discussion, that frustration festers and that is never good."
Ali will join Hip Hop Caucus as a senior vice president. The group is a non-profit that aims to promote political activism for young US voters through hip-hop music and culture. He is scheduled to speak Thursday at an environmental justice conference in Flint, in his first public appearance with the organization.
"What I'm hoping to do is highlight that environmental justice needs to continue to happen," Ali said, "that there are opportunities to make it happen, and that if we don't do it there will be huge public health impacts."
A Letter of Resignation
To: Administrator Scott Pruitt
US Environmental Protect Agency
Office of the Administrator
Washington, DC 20460
(March 8, 2017) -- I am writing to you today to officially tender my resignation as the Assistant Associate Administrator for Environmental Justice at the Environmental Protection Agency, effective Wednesday March 8, 2017. Over the past 24 years, I have been blessed with the opportunity to work with a number of Administrators of both parties, starting with William Riley and ending with yourself.
During that time, I have watched each of them weigh the enormous challenges, responsibilities, and opportunities that exist in protecting public health and the environment of our great country. I have also been fortunate to work with an incredible group of talented and innovative staff, who are equally as committed to ensuring that all Americans have Clean Air to breathe, Clean Water to drink and Clean Land that our children can play on and farmers can grow healthy crops.
I would be remiss if I did not point out that while we have made great strides in protecting the air, water and land for most of our citizens, there are still many disproportionate environmental impacts occurring in our most vulnerable communities. Communities of color, low-income communities and indigenous populations are still struggling to receive equal protections before the law.
These communities both rural and urban often live in areas with toxic levels of air pollution, crumbling or non-existent water and sewer infrastructure, lead in their drinking water, brownfields from vacant former industrial and commercial sites, Superfund and other hazardous waste sites, as well as other sources of exposures to pollutants.
Despite the many challenges we face regarding the impacts of pollution and a changing climate, we have just as many effective tools and programs, with long track records of assisting vulnerable communities in meeting their goals of improving public health and enhancing the environmental quality of their local communities.
Over the past twenty-four years, having worked with more than five hundred communities, I have learned a few things I want to share with you.
The first is, "Communities Speak for Themselves". When we listen and then work collaboratively with our stakeholders, some very productive actions can happen that have real positive change in local communities.
Secondly, is the need to recognize and support the incredible wealth of knowledge and innovative ideas that exists in the communities that we serve.
A number of our most successful programs and grants evolved out of recommendations from "Frontline" communities. These recommendations grew into programs that have assisted many communities in their journey from Surviving to Thriving.
So, when I hear we are considering making cuts to grant programs like the EJ small grants or Collaborative Problem Solving programs, which have assisted over 1400 communities, I wonder if our new leadership has had the opportunity to converse with those who need our help the most.
I strongly encourage you and your team to continue promoting agency efforts to validate these communities' concerns, and value their lives.
The Brownfields program, which focuses on cleaning up formerly contaminated sites, has had huge, positive impacts in vulnerable communities. These often, abandoned sites are usually located in environmentally and economically vulnerable communities. The EPA Brownfields program provides an opportunity to reduce the impacts from legacy pollution, creates jobs and develops a skilled workforce through the worker training program.
Any cuts to this program will increase the public health impacts and decrease the economic opportunities in these communities whom often have higher unemployment rates. Maintaining this important investment is a powerful demonstration of EPA's commitment to value these communities and the people's lives within them.
Brownfields revitalization also makes good economic sense. Through fiscal year 2016, on average, $16.11 was leveraged for each EPA Brownfields dollar and 8.5 jobs leveraged per $100,000 of EPA brownfields funds expended on assessment, cleanup, and revolving loan fund cooperative agreements.
We often forget that the choices we make on regulations affecting clean air, clean water and enforcement are interconnected with the lives of our vulnerable communities and tribal populations.
Communities have shared with me over the past two decades how important the enforcement work at the Agency is in protecting their often forgotten and overlooked communities. They feel that when done properly, enforcement plays a critical role in ensuring that all communities, especially those with environmental justice concerns are being protected from serious threats from chemical hazards and ensuring that their air, water, and land are safe.
By ensuring that there is equal protection and enforcement in these communities, EPA plays a significant role in addressing unintended impacts and improving some of the public health disparities that often exist from exposure to pollution.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "We may have come to these shores on different ships, but we are now all in the same boat". The upcoming choices you make will have significant impacts on the public health and environment of our country.
Those choices can stand as a beacon of hope, and as a powerful role model to the rest of the world on our priorities and values. Those choices will be magnified ten-fold in our most vulnerable communities and will highlight the value we place on the lives in those communities who are too often overlooked and forgotten.
I believe that you can assist these communities in their journey towards equity and justice by continuing the Senior Advisor for Environmental Justice position on your leadership team. This position will allow you to identify, prioritize and strategize about important issues, and provide you with an enhanced understanding of how future policy decisions may have unintended disproportionate impacts on these communities.
Also, continuing to support the Office of Environmental Justice which has played a significant role in bringing communities, states, local and tribal governments, business and industry and other key stakeholders together to find collaborative solutions to many of the country's most serious environmental and public health issues and concerns.
The President has shared that he will focus on strengthening the Urban core and Appalachia. He also shared when in Flint, Michigan in 2016, that he would fix the drinking water issues once he was elected. These focus areas have strong environmental justice and equitable development components. The EPA is fortunate to have staff with expertise in these areas, that can help you achieve those goals that the President has identified.
Administrator, you also have a great resource in the Environmental Justice Inter-Agency Working Group (EJIWG), which you chair. This group is made up of 17 Federal Agencies who can assist you in developing a holistic approach in addressing the challenges and opportunities that many communities with environmental justice concerns face on a daily basis.
With shrinking budgets and a more streamlined approach by our new Administration, I'm sure you will be looking for opportunities to leverage resources and technical expertise to meet the needs of our most vulnerable communities. The EJIWG has also played a role in many placed based projects over the years that have worked with local communities to identify their most pressing needs.
There are examples like the ReGenesis project in Spartanburg, SC, where a community leveraged a $25,000 EJ small grant into millions of dollars in positive local changes - creating jobs and improving their environments through collaborative partnerships.
One of the points that you shared with staff in your recent town hall was that you were looking for opportunities to balance the environment and the economy. The environmental justice work and other placed-based programs at EPA have focused on collaboration with states, local governments, tribes, the private sector, and local communities.
There are countless examples of how the local communities vision for revitalization have grown into productive collaborative partnerships. I hope you will find time on your calendar to visit with these communities and see firsthand the challenges and transformational work that is happening.
Administrator Pruitt, I know we both understand the commitment we made to the American people when we each raised our right hand and said that:
"I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God."
You have 15,000 EPA staff at Headquarters and in our 10 Regions and Labs who are equally committed to supporting and upholding those protections.
Administrator Pruitt, you have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring people together, to ensure that all communities have safe places to live, learn, work, play and pray and to ensure that our most vulnerable communities, who have been struggling for clean air to breathe and clean water to drink becomes a reality for them and their children.
I wish you well as you move forward on protecting the public health and environment of our nation, and as you help to make the American Dream a reality for all.
Mustafa Santiago Ali
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.