EPA environmental justice leader on his resignation: ‘I needed to stand up’

Mustafa Ali has been with the EPA since 1992. He told ThinkProgress that he “saw something that was significantly different” with the Trump administration.

CREDIT: Mustafa Ali
CREDIT: Mustafa Ali

On March 8, Mustafa Ali, head of the environmental justice program at the Environmental Protection Agency, sent a letter to his new boss, Administrator Scott Pruitt, informing him that he would be leaving the agency, effective immediately.

Ali’s resignation came amid rumors that the Trump administration may seek to cut as much as a quarter from the EPA’s budget — cuts that would include the Office of Environmental Justice, where Ali worked since 1992, when he helped found the environmental justice program under President George H.W. Bush.

In his three-page resignation letter, Ali urged Pruitt to support critical programs meant to help the country’s most vulnerable populations — low-income communities, communities of color, and indigenous communities — gain equitable access to clean air, clean water, and unspoiled land.

Thus far, there is little indication the Trump EPA will heed Ali’s advice. Since assuming office, Trump has set about swiftly rolling back Obama-era environmental regulations, including those that protect communities from water and air pollution. And Pruitt, in his first tweet as EPA administrator, said he looked forward to working with industry stakeholders — farmers, ranchers, business owners. He did not mention, however, the American public.

Ali spoke with ThinkProgress by phone less than a week after his resignation to discuss the federal legacy of environmental justice, its future under the Trump administration, and why he believes this is a historic moment for the country.

I’d like to start by talking about your resignation letter. When did you come to the decision that you would be stepping down, and what was it like drafting that letter?

I needed to stand up. I wanted to respectfully share information [about environmental justice programs], in hoping that some of the decisions that the new administrator will have to make, that he will begin to value those communities and value those lives and begin to infuse that into some of those decisions they would be making.

“I needed to stand up.”

I watched the Senate confirmation hearing, and when Senator Booker asked the question about environmental justice, the incoming administrator at that time shared that he, in essence, knew a little bit about the concept. I wanted to make sure that I shared some additional information that he may not have had. He may not have spent any time in those communities, or even have had any conversations with them. I placed all that in that resignation letter, to try and help him and the new administration be in a better place in relationship to the communities that I had served over the past couple of decades.

When did you decide that you would be resigning, and what factored into that decision? What’s the calculus between resigning and remaining within the EPA to work from the inside?

My values and priorities were different than our new administration, or at least in what I had seen to date. I prayed a lot on this decision, and asked God for guidance, and discernment, that I was going to be making the right decision. It was a process that took time, but there were some things that moved me in that direction.

One of those was seeing the rollback of the budget, or the elimination of budgets of certain programs that communities had been working for for years, had been supportive of because they had been working to make positive change inside of their communities. The Office of Environmental Justice and its grant programs, that came out of recommendations from communities. They saw gaps in the work that was happening, and said, ‘This is something that would be beneficial.’ And when you listen to communities, some really incredible things can happen.

I was sitting there and I started to see some of these proposals for rolling back regulations that are critical for these communities… When I saw that, and knowing the science behind these regulations and how important they are, it made me come to the conclusion that either folks just don’t get it, because they haven’t had the opportunity to be educated enough, or you’re not prioritizing the lives of the folks who are in these communities. And I just couldn’t be a part of that.

You have a lot of institutional knowledge of EPA. You started back in the early 90s, under President George H.W. Bush, and you’ve seen administrations — Democrat, Republican — come and go. What about this administration felt different to you?

With all the previous administrations, there were at least some conversations that were happening about the decisions they were going to make, which is extremely important no matter what industry you might be in. If you’re not garnering information from different sectors, from different groups, so that you can make the best decisions possible, then I think you put yourself at a disadvantage, I think you put your agency at a disadvantage, and I think you put the country at a disadvantage at a time when we really need to be focused on coming together.

“With all the previous administrations, there were at least some conversations that were happening about the decisions they were going to make.”

I saw something that was significantly different. I’ve worked for a number of parties, both Democrat and Republican, and I never saw what seemed to be a lack of engagement, some closed-mindedness, and that puts you in a position where you are not going to be able to fully protect the public health and environment of our country in general, and specifically of our most vulnerable communities.

For so long the environmental justice movement has gotten so much of its power from local communities and local organizing. But what does the movement lose when it loses an engaged federal partner?

They lose that convener, because in many instances, when the federal family or federal agency enters into a space, it will attract others to that conversation, allowing communities to get traction to be able to be a full partner in a process. They also lose some of the resources and technical assistance that is extremely critical to be able to address these issues.

A rally in front of the White House with members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other tribal nations and their supporters in opposition of the Dakota Access oil pipeline. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
A rally in front of the White House with members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other tribal nations and their supporters in opposition of the Dakota Access oil pipeline. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

There’s a responsibility there, too. These are communities where folks get up and go to work, and when they get up these impacts are there and when they come home from work these same impacts are still there. And they are paying taxes. So the federal family has a responsibility to honor that, and to be protecting them. That’s what we are there for.

There are some states that are really good at this work. And then there are others who are not quite there yet. And if the federal family is not there to make sure that these laws and statutes and regulations are enforced and lived up to, then there will be some communities that are going to have greater impacts because of that lack of enforcement.

In your letter, you wrote that “the President has shared that he will focus on strengthening the Urban core and Appalachia. He also shared when in Flint, Michigan in 2016, that he would fix the drinking water issues once elected.” You then go on to say that these are all areas that have real environmental justice components. Where is the disconnect, in your mind, between the words of this administration — saying they want to help urban cores or revitalize coal country — and their priorities when it comes to budget and funding?

I think there are some opportunities for them to fill some gaps. One would be inviting stakeholders in to have honest and regular conversations about these issues, and exploring those, and figuring out the resources that the federal family and other partners have to be able to address these issues. We have the ability to do it, we just have to have the will to do it.

The other thing that I think would be very helpful to them would be to begin to bring people into their administration who have experiences in these spaces, who come from these communities, who worked in these communities, who know these communities, and will have authentic engagement with these communities. If you do not have folks who come from these experiences and learning, I think you put yourself at a disadvantage.

“Have you heard them mention anything about finding the best in the environment? Or in environmental justice?”

When you don’t have that, you’re sending a signal — because, again, it goes back to your values and priorities. If you prioritize these issues, that means you are going to go out and find the best people that you possibly can to give you the best information so that you can make the best decisions. And you see that — they are thinking critical about lots of other issues where they go out and find people that they feel are the best. But have you heard them mention anything about finding the best in the environment? Or in environmental justice?

What do you think is the legacy of the federal government in the environmental justice movement up to this point?

The legacy is what stakeholders have been pushing for — to give a central point in the government where the voice of communities could be heard and could be implemented, and where they would have a place where they would be able to engage. That has now integrated throughout 17 federal agencies, and because of that traction and because of the creation of those structural entities, you have environmental justice programs in a number of states, in some local governments, and academic institutions.

There is still a huge amount of work that needs to happen. There are still significant gaps that are happening. We still have elevated levels of asthma in a number of communities that is devastating to families and to their pocket books as well.

Scenes from Flint, MI. CREDIT (from left): AP Photo/Paul Sancya; AP Photo/Carlos Osorio; AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
Scenes from Flint, MI. CREDIT (from left): AP Photo/Paul Sancya; AP Photo/Carlos Osorio; AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

I was just in Flint and I was thinking — I met some really great young people and just looking in their eyes, and thinking, what does the future hold for them? Those impacts of lead can linger for a long time.

That is why it is so important that we have places that are focused on the disproportionate impacts, and that they are helping other parts of the federal family to understand the role that they can play in helping to address these disparities that are happening in public health.

Where does the work go now? How does it change in the face of the priorities you’ve discussed with this administration perhaps not recognizing the value of this work?

Folks are moving out of their silos, folks are gaining even greater appreciation for working together collaboratively. I think that what you’re going to see is a number of new partners coming into the space — folks from Silicon Valley and the tech space, academia, philanthropy. I think you’re going to see a lot more work happening at the local and state level, and that is going to be coming through those successful examples that are out there. I’m very big on helping people understand the opportunities, and how some communities have been able to do some phenomenal work that has been transformative in making change.

One of the things that has come out of this moment is that a number of folks are now going to get much more engaged in the democratic process, in voting, in making sure that they are going to have clean air and clean water and clean land.

“This is a pivotal moment in the history of our country.”

This is a pivotal moment in the history of our country. I’m excited about the future. It’s disappointing, some of the proposals of rolling back and taking steps backwards in relationship to protecting people’s health and the environment.

But the flip side of that coin is that a lot of folks are now paying much more attention. This is going to be one of those moments that people look back on in a couple of decades and say ‘This is one of the times we started to change the paradigm and started to be much more inclusive in building a better future.’

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.