EPA Environmental Justice Leader Resigns, Amid White House Plans to Dismantle Program

(The Washington Post) -

A key environmental justice leader at the Environmental Protection Agency has resigned, saying that a recent budget proposal to defund such work would harm the people who most rely on the EPA.

Mustafa Ali, a senior advisor and assistant associate administrator for environmental justice, has served more than two decades at the agency, working to ease the burden of air and water pollution in hundreds of poor, minority communities nationwide. He helped found the EPA’s environmental justice office during the early 1990s and became a key adviser to agency administrators under Republican and Democratic presidents.

Ali’s departure, initially reported Thursday by InsideClimate, comes as the White House is seeking to close the agency’s Office of Environmental Justice. A budget proposal reviewed last week by The Washington Post would cut the agency’s overall budget by a quarter, leading to a 20 percent reduction in the workforce. It also listed the environmental justice program as among several dozen slated to lose all funding. The document stated that the new administration supports the idea of environmental justice but would eliminate that EPA office and “assumes any future EJ specific policy work can be transferred to the Office of Policy.”

Ali explained his departure in an interview Thursday, saying, “I never saw in the past a concerted effort to roll back the positive steps that many, many people have worked on through all the previous administrations. . . I can’t be a part of anything that would hurt those [disadvantaged] communities. I just couldn’t sign off on those types of things.”

He added that it remains early in the Trump era and noted that each new administration sets its own priorities. Still, he said, “I hadn’t seen any positive movement in relationship to vulnerable communities. . . I hadn’t seen yet any engagement with communities with environmental justice concerns.”

In his resignation letter, Ali implored the agency’s administrator, former Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, to think twice before slashing EPA programs aimed at helping disadvantaged areas.

“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.”

“The future ain’t what it used to be at the EPA,” Pruitt recently told an audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

That’s a future Ali decided not to stick around for at the agency.

“I’ve seen too much over the years to allow there to be any rolling back,” he said. “Sometimes people forget that we’re talking about folks lives. If we do our job properly, it can be a huge benefit. If not, it can have big [negative] impacts.”

Michelle Roberts, national co-coordinator of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, said on Thursday that Ali “played a significant role on the issue of environmental justice” by advocating within the EPA on behalf of low-income Americans and those of color. “People were able to have a seat at the table” through Ali’s work, Roberts said, noting that he also helped provide the grants and technical resources that allowed communities to show how they were being disproportionately affected by pollution.

Ali pressed for President Barack Obama to issue a 2013 executive order that improved chemical plant safety, Roberts noted, and served as a crucial intermediary between the town of Mossville, Louisiana, and the company building a major plant nearby.

It is unclear whether the proposed cuts will remain in place when the White House releases its budget blueprint in mid-March, and any reductions would have to be approved by Congress through the appropriations process.

Ali also helped shape one of the last major EPA initiatives under the Obama administration — an “EJ 2020 Action Agenda” that would direct more enforcement resources to pollution-affected communities, focus on eliminating disparities in drinking water and air quality around the country, and consider environmental justice issues in the agency’s rulemaking and permitting approaches. There have been few indications that the new administration intends to follow through on that plan.

On Thursday, Ali made his first public appearance for the group at an environmental justice conference in Flint, Michigan, home to a poor community nearly three years into a crippling water contamination crisis.