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What EPA budget cuts could mean for low-income and minority communities


Listen to today's Environment Report.

The EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice is meant to defend communities that face a disproportionate share of the effects of pollution. But that office’s funding could be cut entirely in the 2018 budget.

When President Trump’s proposed budget cut funding for environmental justice work at the EPA, Mustafa Ali took a stand. Twenty-four years after helping create and lead the EPA’s environmental justice office, he resigned in March in protest.

In an interview with Vice Magazine, Ali said, “I needed to stand up, and say the choices, and the proposed choices that were being made, that they would not be beneficial to the communities I’ve dedicated my life to.”

Others in Ali's line of work are also concerned about what’s to come.

“It would be a shame to get rid of the one office that is in touch with people, that understands what the potential burdens are of our bad environmental decisions,” says Lisa Garcia of the non-profit law organization, EarthJustice.

During the Obama administration, Garcia was Senior Advisor to the Administrator for Environmental Justice at the EPA. We spoke with Garcia by Skype.

“There’s not many offices that go out into the field, one. And there’s not any other office dedicated to making sure that the agency is reaching out to communities of color, to low-income communities, to indigenous populations, other than the tribal office," she says. "And so it’s just a huge loss in that sense, that you would lose communication with so many communities, who you’re supposed to represent. Because they can’t get on their private jets, or go to D.C. every time you have a meeting on oil, or coal, or climate.”

The EPA has been criticized for not doing enough about environmental discrimination against low-income and minority communities.

Of 300 claims of environmental discrimination since 1993, the agency made a preliminary finding of injustice in only one case. But Garcia says this discounts the successes of the environmental justice office.

She says it changed the view of nearly everyone at the EPA in more subtle ways.

“If you were a rule writer, you weren’t in the office of environmental justice, but you had to look at certain impacts to people in low-income communities and communities of color. If you were in the Office of Water, you had to begin to look at these impacts," says Garcia. "While we were there, we developed a mapping tool called EJ Screen, so that everyone could actually begin to see the data of air and water and traffic, and also the demographic information of an area.”

Garcia says it’s a slow process for the few people in the environmental justice office to change what she calls the DNA of the thousands of people throughout the agency to consider income, race and other community factors when making decisions. Now, she says, with the expected budget cuts to environmental justice at EPA, it will take outside groups, like hers, to keep moving this agenda forward.

The EPA did not respond to our request for an interview.

Copyright 2021 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.

Julie Grant