What Happens When We Lose ‘The One Office That Understands’ Bad Environmental Decisions?

Jun 22, 2017

When  President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cut funding for environmental justice work at the EPA, Mustafa Ali took a stand. 

For 24 years, Ali helped create and lead the EPA’s environmental justice office. He resigned in March in protest.

He spoke to Vice magazine soon after and said, “I needed to stand up and say the choices, and the proposed choices, that were being made were not beneficial to the communities I’ve dedicated my life to.”

Others in his line of work are also concerned about what’s to come. Lisa Garcia is a lawyer for the non-profit law organization, EarthJustice. During the Obama Administration, she was Senior Advisor to the Administrator for Environmental Justice at the EPA.

“It would be a shame to get rid of the one office that understands what the potential burdens are of our bad environmental decisions,” she says. “There’s not many offices that go out into the field, one. And there’s not any other office dedicated to making sure that the agency is reaching out to communities of color, to low income communities, to indigenous communities, other than the tribal office. And so it’s just a huge loss in that sense, that you would lose communication with so many communities, who you’re supposed to represent. Because they can’t get on their private jets to DC every time you a meeting on oil, or coal, or climate.”

The EPA has been criticized for not doing enough about environmental discrimination against low income and minority communities. Of 300 claims of environmental discrimination since 1993, the agency made a preliminary finding of injustice in only one case. But Garcia says this discounts the successes of the environmental justice office. She says it changed the view of nearly everyone at the EPA in more subtle ways.

“If you were a rule writer, you weren’t in the office of environmental justice, but you had to look at certain impacts to people in low income communities and communities of color. If you were in the office of water, you had to begin to look at these impacts. While we were there we created a mapping tool called EJ screen, so that everyone could actually begin to see the data of air and water and traffic, and also the demographic information of an area.”

Garcia says it’s a slow process for the few people in the Environmental Justice office to change what she calls the DNA of the thousands of people throughout the agency to consider income, race and other community factors when making decisions. Now, she says, with the expected budget cuts to environmental justice at EPA, it will take outside groups like hers to keep moving this agenda forward.

The EPA did not respond to our interview request.

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There’s a longer conversation with Lisa Garcia this week on our podcast, Trump on Earth. You can subscribe to the podcast there, too.

Find this report and others on the site of our partner, Allegheny Front