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EPA's Chief Environmental Justice Official Steps Down

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A man who oversaw the drive for Environmental Justice resigned on Thursday. Mustafa Ali is his name, and he was assistant associate administrator for environmental justice at the Environmental Protection Agency, which is contemplating big changes. He's in our studios. Good morning. Thanks for coming by.

MUSTAFA ALI: Well, thank you so much.

INSKEEP: For those who haven't really heard of it, what is environmental justice?

ALI: Environmental justice deals with the disproportionate impacts that are happening in low-income communities, communities of color and tribal populations.

INSKEEP: The idea being that if there's an old factory that is polluting, it might very well be in a rundown neighborhood with lots of poor people. And then you would focus on that in environmental justice. Is that right?

ALI: That's definitely correct.

INSKEEP: OK. So why did you quit?

ALI: Well, you know, it was a few different reasons. My values and priorities seemed to be different than our new administration when it came to vulnerable communities. I, you know, took a moment to - I wanted to always be fair and evaluate if they were going to focus on our most vulnerable communities. And to date, I had not seen that.

So that gave me some - a great pause, if you will. Also, there was the budget. And when I saw that many of the programs throughout the agency and beyond were being considered to be zeroed out, I felt that that sent a signal that vulnerable communities may not be high up on the priority list.

INSKEEP: I guess we should mention there's talk of a 20 percent or more cut in the EPA if Congress goes along. We don't know that they will. Scott Pruitt, the new administrator, likes some of the programs in the EPA. So he might try to keep them, which means others would be cut more. The Washington Post reported that there is at least discussion of eliminating the Office of Environmental Justice. Do you, from your experience inside, understand that to be the way things are going?

ALI: Yes. That that is the direction that things are headed. But I hope that they will reconsider that and understand the value that exists inside of that office and the overall environmental justice program.

INSKEEP: Do you need a separate office of environmental justice? Because this Washington Post report suggests that they would simply move those functions to another part of the agency.

ALI: You definitely do. There are still those disproportionate impacts that are happening. You need to be laser-focused on these issues. And actually, the office came into being because a set of stakeholders, over two decades ago, put forth a set of recommendations to deal with that disproportionate impact, but also to begin to focus on the opportunities that exist and helping to revitalize vulnerable communities. So it's about helping to stop that pollution that's happening, but also about creating economic opportunities, green space - so many other things that communities with environmental injustices are looking for.

INSKEEP: Somebody listening might wonder, like, does it really matter what your race is if you're suffering pollution?

ALI: Well, it's also low-income white communities. That is a misnomer that sometimes folks have. So if you look through Appalachia - if you look throughout the Rust Belt and so many other places across our country, there are many communities who are also facing environmental injustices.

INSKEEP: Have you had trouble really focusing on this? There's a related office, the Office of Civil Rights, inside the EPA. And the Center for Public Integrity, which is an independent group, studied this and found that in about 22 years, they had only made one referral for federal action. That doesn't sound very active.

ALI: Yes. Well, you know, there have been some real challenges in that space. And I and others have worked to try and make sure that those gaps are filled. And I have to say, I try to be a very fair person. The Office of Civil Rights has made some progress, especially over the last couple of years - making sure they're staffing up, getting a strategic plan in place, better engaging with those stakeholders who have been filing cases over the years. So I want to make sure that I do give them, you know, some positive marks for moving forward.

INSKEEP: In a sentence or two, what advice would you give to Scott Pruitt, the new EPA administrator?

ALI: Oh, great question. I would ask him to make sure that he is prioritizing the lives of our most vulnerable communities. I would also ask him to engage with those communities, to hear from them. And then finally, I would ask him to make sure that he's visiting those communities so that he can see the challenges, but he can also see the transformative opportunities that exist as well.

INSKEEP: Mustafa Ali, thanks for coming by. I really appreciate it. He resigned from the Environmental Protection Agency. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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