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Biden’s focus on environmental justice led to a year of progress — and burnout

The president’s top environmental justice official resigned just weeks before the White House marked the one-year anniversary of his ambitious climate agenda

President Biden signs executive orders on climate change with Vice President Harris, White House science adviser Eric Lander and national climate adviser Gina McCarthy on Jan. 27, 2021. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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As he prepared to embark on “the most ambitious climate and environmental justice agenda ever pursued” in Washington, President Biden tapped one of the nation’s foremost experts on the topic to lead his historic effort.

But Cecilia Martinez barely lasted a year in a role that felt like a pressure cooker.

Building a new framework across multiple federal agencies at the thinly staffed Council on Environmental Quality was exhausting, Martinez said. She resigned exactly three weeks before Thursday’s anniversary of Biden’s executive order to inject environmental justice into the DNA of federal agencies.

The Jan. 27 order seeks to undo historical wrongs that burdened underprivileged communities with disproportionately high levels of pollution.

“I got dangerously close to burnout,” Martinez said in a recent interview from her home in New Mexico. “Literally it was nonstop, seven days a week, all day long. In the midst of just some personal family issues I had, I literally had to rearrange my stepfather’s funeral around … meetings. It was just an incredible pace.”

'This is environmental racism'

That arduous pace and near burnout shows how difficult it is to bake an environmental justice framework into the federal government from scratch. Her departure has led some in her circle to wonder if the administration is truly committed to employing enough workers to tackle an overwhelming job.

Environmental justice — also know as environmental injustice and environmental racism — emerged out of protests against toxic-waste dumping, freeways, industrial plants, concrete batch facilities, incinerators, landfills, mineral mines and other types of pollution that are disproportionately located in communities of color.

A recent study by the Environmental Protection Agency showed that particulate matter air pollution adversely affects Americans of color regardless of their state or income level.

Other studies have shown that air pollution is disproportionately caused by the nation’s White majority but its impact is felt largely by African Americans and Latinos.

Biden set out to ease that burden with Justice40, which commits 40 percent of federal resources “to advance environmental justice and spur economic opportunity for disadvantaged communities.”

It was an unprecedented allocation by a president, but many observers say it requires a small army of workers the administration has yet to hire. In past years, there were no full-time environmental justice workers at CEQ; now there are six, said Brenda Mallory, the council’s chair.

Critics and some environmental justice advocates working in the administration said up to 100 are needed.

“You’ve got to double or triple the size of CEQ,” said Mustafa Ali, a vice president at the National Wildlife Federation and a founding member of the environmental justice office at the Environmental Protection Agency. “You most definitely want to be able to permanently build a career staff throughout the federal government so that no matter what administration is in, you still have that capacity” to do the work.

At this year’s first public meeting of the 25-member White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which Martinez established and appointed about a year ago, Mallory praised her work on what she called the most ambitious environmental justice work the federal government has attempted.

“From President Biden’s campaign, through the transition, to this critical first year of the administration, Dr. Martinez gave all she had to the task of shaping and launching the president’s environmental justice agenda,” Mallory said during the Wednesday webinar.

“Every one of us — and millions of people across the country — has benefited from Cecilia’s energy, wisdom, experience, kindness, and heart,” she said.

The resignation shocked a number of panelists who attended the webinar, but Mallory knew it was coming. Martinez said they talked and were working on a transition. “I didn’t abruptly resign,” she said.

Members of the panel, known as WHEJAC, were also shaken by the seemingly sudden resignation of David Kieve, a Biden loyalist who had worked for him since the early days of his campaign for the Democratic nomination.

In a statement released by CEQ, Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the president, called him “an important ambassador for the president to the climate community.” Kieve could not be reached for comment.

Catherine Coleman Flowers, a vice-chair of the panel, also praised Martinez and Kieve. But she didn’t want their resignations to distract from what the administration has accomplished: bringing environmental justice from the political margins to the center of government and giving activists who worked in the shadows a role in guiding policy.

“I think first of all, people do cycle out of these positions. This is not unusual,” said Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice in Montgomery, Ala. and a recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant. “I think one of the great things is that Cecilia and David both created great foundations for us to build upon, and we are all working seven days a week.”

Biden has provided “an opportunity that we have never had before, and I’m willing to get something than end up with nothing because we’ve had nothing for most of the time we’ve been fighting with these issues.”

Another panel member, Maria Belen Power, said she was alarmed by Martinez’s departure. At the same time, she shared Flowers’s view of the bigger picture.

“Every person you lose like Cecilia Martinez is a step backward,” said Power, associate executive director of GreenRoots in Chelsea, Mass. “I think that’s why this departure of two critical folks is hard, and it is a blow to the intent and the principles of the WHEJAC.

“You can’t put all the work on one person, or two people, or three people,” Power said. “We’re not paid staff on the WHEJAC, and it’s a lot of hours — a lot of hours. I can see in this work … people being burned out year after year after year.”

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On the other hand, she said, “I see people within the Biden administration that have done and are doing incredible work.”

Power recalled an Energy Department briefing by Shalanda Baker, a senior adviser to the secretary. “She was amazing. She’s incredibly smart and incredibly compassionate,” Power said. “Her expertise and the connection she has with environmental justice, you can feel that. You can see it in the way she listens and the way she responds, and that matters.”

During the webinar, Mallory sought to reassure panelists that the White House is committed to the work. Two CEQ staffers presented detailed highlights of the administration’s environmental justice accomplishments so far.

Krystal Laymon, deputy director of climate resilience, played up the $55 billion in the new infrastructure law slated to improve wastewater facilities, including $15 billion to remove lead pipes that contaminated drinking water in cities such as Flint, Mich. About $28 million was dedicated to preventive coastal erosion on native land on the Kenai River Bluffs in Alaska.

Another $65 billion is dedicated to improving the electric grid and $1 billion is meant to reconnect communities, many of them Black, dissected by massive freeway and highway projects that started in the early 1960s. Layman didn’t mention that the proposed allocation was $3 billion higher.

The presenters also didn’t mention that tens of billions of dollars set aside for environmental justice under the proposed Build Back Better Act was lost when it failed to pass Congress, presenting significant funding challenges.

Wednesday’s meeting of the advisory panel appeared to be coordinated to coincide with the anniversary of the executive order and other environmental justice pronouncements.

It dovetailed with EPA Administrator Michael Regan’s vow that day to take “bold” action to address concerns of residents in environmental justice communities in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, which he toured in November.

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Regan said EPA will buy more than a half-million dollars’ worth of air-quality-monitoring equipment and deploy it in areas such as Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” and a chemical corridor in Houston.

Like past environmental justice meetings, panelists heard presentations Wednesday from department heads working to incorporate equity into everything they do.

Adm. Rachel L. Levine, an assistant secretary at Health and Human Services, said environmental justice was being infused into climate resiliency and health equity at the agency.

And Arsenio Mataka, a senior adviser for health equity and climate at the agency, talked about his commitment to environmental justice born from watching his parents and other adults fight medical and garbage incinerators slated for his central California community.

“We’re working with the Office of Civil Rights [at HHS] to determine how environmental justice intersects with civil rights,” Mataka said.

Both presenters were bombarded with questions from panelists. Nicky Sheats of Union, N.J., caught something Mataka said about his days as an activist in California and asked him to back up.

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Sheats asked Mataka if he heard him say the state of California has 100 full-time environmental justice workers — far more than the federal government.

“That’s what I’m told,” Mataka said. They were not hired in one swoop, he added. Each time there was environmental-related legislation, activists helped pencil in more workers. “We were adding hires to bills.”

That many workers would’ve provided better support for Martinez, who now sits in New Mexico enjoying her current role as a full-time grandmother to two little boys and a caretaker for her ailing mother.

“I could feel myself not being as top-quality as I should be,” Martinez said of her final days at CEQ. “You know, like I could feel myself just getting tired, and we need people who are top-quality right now, at their peak performance to get this done. I just needed a respite.”