In March, Mustafa Santiago Ali resigned his position as Assistant Associate Administrator for Environmental Justice at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Ali helped found the agency’s Office of Environmental Justice and served the EPA for 24 years. He played a major role in the design and implementation of many of the agency’s most successful environmental justice programs.
Ali’s resignation came just as President Trump had released a proposed federal budget that guts EPA’s funding by 31 percent. If Trump has his way, the Office of Environmental Justice will be eliminated entirely. Taken together, Ali’s resignation and the President’s draconian budget cuts raise serious concerns about the future of environmental justice at the federal level – as well as the fate of critical programs that help vulnerable communities right here in New England. This threat comes at a time when the need to ensure that all of our communities are safe places to live, learn, work, play, and pray has never been greater.
Decades of Progress Now under Threat
Environmental justice is the struggle for the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people – regardless of race, national origin, or income – in the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws and policies. In other words, it aims to ensure that those of us living in low-income or communities of color – and who already bear a disproportionate burden of industrial pollution in our neighborhoods – have a voice when the next polluting power plant, landfill, highway, or factory is proposed for our backyard.
It also ensures that when our communities are harmed by pollution, we are not ignored, but are given the resources needed to clean up and protect our neighborhoods and our families. And, when there are positive changes – such as improvements or expansions to public transit – environmental justice works to make sure that everyone benefits, regardless of our race, income, or ethnicity.
Environmental justice began as a grassroots movement in the early 1980s. By the 1990s, it had become an official part of the executive branch, first through the creation of EPA’s Office of Environmental Equity under President George H.W. Bush and, later, through that Office’s renaming as the current Office of Environmental Justice by President Bill Clinton. Last year, the EJ 2020 Action Agenda, was created under the Obama Administration to address continuing environmental gaps in the quality of life economically disadvantaged communities.
There’s Still Much More Work to Do
The threat to roll back the progress made in the last two-plus decades is alarming considering how far we still have to go to uphold environmental justice. EPA’s EJ 2020 Action Agenda is meant to be a starting point to a conversation that will give a voice to a burdened population that has never had political influence.
Even today, many more underprivileged children suffer harm from toxic pollution, such as lead poisoning, than their peers in more affluent communities. In areas with aging infrastructure and barely adequate basic necessities such as clean water, communities of color continue to outnumber any other groups.
It’s not enough to recognize those who carry the burdens while wealthier neighbors benefit from environmental protection; we have to actively address these disparities. As Mustafa Ali says in his resignation letter, environmental justice communities must have the means and the opportunity to move “from surviving to thriving.”
At Risk: Programs that Help New England’s Environment and Economy
The programs led by EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice do much more than relieve the burdens caused by pollution, however. The Brownfields Program, for example, transforms contaminated and abandoned lots in industrial communities into productive spaces and has created more than 61,000 jobs. In Trump’s budget, this successful program faces an uncertain future.
The EJ small grants program is also at risk. These grants supply more than $25 million in seed money to over 1,400 communities nationwide so that they can become stronger and more involved. Here in New England, communities received more than $500,000 in grants between 2000 and 2005 alone, funding over 90 projects ranging from lead poisoning control to identifying the sources of water pollution.
These grants also provide community members the means to come together and learn about the environmental impacts that federal decisions would have within their community. Without the small grants program to empower local communities, environmental harms may go unaddressed.
Federal environmental justice programs financially support our vulnerable communities here at home and facilitate conversations that aren’t being had through regular channels. Defunding the EJ Office, failing to replace the Assistant Associate Administrator position (no successor has been announced), and rolling back these critical programs would threaten decades of progress and the very idea of justice and equality for all.