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The Future of Environmental Justice in the Biden Administration

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  As President-Elect Biden assembles his new administration, one candidate being considered for a top environmental position, perhaps director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, is Mustafa Santiago Ali.

Ali worked for 24 years at the Environmental Protection Agency and was its senior advisor for environmental yustice. He was a founding member of EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, which is dedicated to reducing pollution in minority and lower-income communities, including those in Baltimore.

After working for EPA most of his life – he started there as a student intern -- Ali quit in March of 2017 after the new Trump Administration tried to eliminate the Office of Environmental Justice. It was part of Trump’s general hostility toward government programs, especially those that would help urban areas and people of color.   

Here’s Mustafa Ali: "I saw what the new administration was going to do by not honoring science, by eliminating programs that were critical for front-line communities in protecting their lives and their health.  And I knew that I couldn’t be part of that.”

   

Eventually, Congress blocked Trump from killing the EPA Office of Environmental Justice.

“They were trying to eliminate it,” Ali said. “But because there was so much attention from folks across the country, including some from myself, they were not able to eliminate that office. But it was moved, and taken down the food chain, so to speak….so that it would be less effective.”

In the same way, the U.S. Congress -- including Democrats and Republicans alike -- blocked Trump from slashing EPA’s budget and zeroing out spending on programs like the Chesapeake Bay cleanup. Instead, the Trump Administration diminished and weakened the environmental justice program.

So Ali left EPA. Instead, he helped lead a group called the Hip Hop Caucus, a national non-profit organization that connects the hip-hop community to efforts to create positive change. He then became a vice president at the National Wildlife Federation, working to focus that organization on not just protecting grey wolves and other endangered animals, but also on fighting for lower-income communities and helping them move from surviving to thriving.

Looking to the future and the Biden administration, Ali said he would recommend that the new administration start treating the covid pandemic as a social justice issue.

“Covid is one of those tragic situations where if we learn the lessons, we can build the right infrastructure to really protect folks,” Ali said. “We got about 25 million people living in medically-underserved areas, in physician deserts.  And we all know we’ve got 80 million people uninsured and underinsured.  And Covid feeds off of long-term medical conditions.”

So expanding health care and health services –including in cities like Baltimore-- could help tackle the terrible public health environment that is making the pandemic so deadly, especially for minority and poor communities.

“Most folks don’t know that we’ve got 100,000 people dying prematurely from air pollution every year in our country,” Ali said. “That’s more than all those dying from gun violence, more than all those dying from car crashes, and a number of other tragic situations.”

The new administration will have many crises to solve all at the same time  – including vaccine distribution, a recession, and climate change. But increasing federal investments in urban and minority neighborhoods, as well as poor rural areas ,could address the unfairness and injustice that fester like ignored wounds beneath America’s skin, threatening our country’s survival.

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The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at pelton.tom@gmail.com.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.