Environmental Justice Leader Says Budget Cuts Will Hurt Vulnerable Communities Who Depend on EPA

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Proposed budget cuts to the EPA and its environmental justice programs are what prompted Mustafa Ali to step down. Photo by Chris Cruz/ Wilson Center, Environmental Change and Security Program.

One of the Environmental Protection Agency’s key environmental justice leaders resigned on Thursday, March 9, arguing that a recent budget proposal to slash program funds would harm vulnerable communities that rely on the EPA.

Mustafa Ali, a senior adviser and assistant associate administrator for environmental justice who’s served at the agency for the past two decades, has continuously worked to combat the burden of air and water pollution in poor and nonwhite communities nationwide, according to The Washington Post. In the early 1990s, Ali helped found the EPA’s environmental justice office and then the environmental equity office under former President George H.W. Bush.

His resignation, first reported by InsideClimate News, comes as newly appointed EPA administrator Scott Pruitt prepares to implement deep cuts to both the agency’s budget and staff. A budget proposal by President Donald Trump’s administration seeks to slash the EPA’s $8.2 billion budget by $2 billion and reduce its roll of 15,000 employees by a whopping 20 percent, according to the news site.

A recently released White House memo also revealed the Trump administration’s plans to gut the Office of Environmental Justice altogether, while eliminating a number of grant programs that aided low-income and nonwhite communities. In its memo, the White House said that while it supports the idea of environmental justice, it would ax the EPA program and “assume any future EJ specific policy work can be transferred to the Office of Policy.”

“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,” Ali said of his departure in an interview Thursday. “… I can’t be a part of anything that would hurt those communities. I just couldn’t sign off on those types of things.

“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,” he added.

Environmental justice issues have been thrust into the limelight in recent years, most notably with the crippling water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, and disputes over the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. In his resignation letter, Ali urged Pruitt, the former attorney general of Oklahoma, to reconsider the proposed budget cuts to environmental justice programs, especially since they help combat the effects of pollution in communities that need it the most.

“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.”

Pruitt, who environmental justice leaders have been wary of from the start, has been a long-time adversary of the EPA. The former attorney general has sued the agency, along with fossil fuel and other corporate entities, multiple times, arguing that their efforts to control pollution was an overreach of their authority, The Washington Post reported. During his confirmation hearing earlier this year, Pruitt said he believed it was “important that all Americans be treated equally under the law, including the environmental laws,” but critics pointed to the hundreds of thousands of dollars he’s pocketed from big-name oil and gas companies like Exxon Mobile and Koch Industries over the years.

It’s only been a month since Pruitt entered the EPA in February and he’s already made efforts to roll back Obama-era regulations on everything from methane emissions to vehicle fuel standards, according to The Washington Post. Ali said he wants no part of an agency with that sort of agenda.

“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.”

There’s no word on whether Ali’s former position as assistant associate administrator in the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance will be taken over by the Trump administration.

 

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