The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

EPA environmental justice leader resigns, amid White House plans to dismantle program

Mustafa Ali of the Environmental Protection Agency speaks on human rights and the environment during a Wilson Center event in Washington last June. (Chris Cruz/ Wilson Center, Environmental Change and Security Program)

A key environmental justice leader at the Environmental Protection Agency has resigned, saying that a recent budget proposal to defund such work would harm the people who most rely on the EPA.

Mustafa Ali, a senior adviser and assistant associate administrator for environmental justice, has served more than two decades at the agency, working to ease the burden of air and water pollution in hundreds of poor, minority communities nationwide. He helped found the EPA’s environmental justice office during the early 1990s and became a key adviser to agency administrators under Republican and Democratic presidents.

Ali’s departure, initially reported Thursday by InsideClimate, comes as the White House is seeking to close the agency’s Office of Environmental Justice. A budget proposal reviewed last week by The Washington Post would cut the agency’s overall budget by a quarter, leading to a 20 percent reduction in the workforce. It also listed the environmental justice program as among several dozen slated to lose all funding. The document stated that the new administration supports the idea of environmental justice but would eliminate that EPA office and “assumes any future EJ specific policy work can be transferred to the Office of Policy.”

Leaked preliminary funding proposals put many government agencies on the chopping block to fulfill Trump's lofty budget promises. (Video: Jenny Starrs, Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)

White House eyes plan to cut EPA staff by one-fifth, eliminating key programs

Ali explained his departure in an interview Thursday, saying, “I never saw in the past a concerted effort to roll back the positive steps that many, many people have worked on though all the previous administrations. … I can’t be a part of anything that would hurt those communities. I just couldn’t sign off on those types of things.”

He added that it remains early in the Trump era and noted that each new administration sets its own priorities. Still, he said, “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.”

In his resignation letter, Ali implored the agency’s administrator, former Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, to think twice before slashing EPA programs aimed at helping disadvantaged areas.

“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.”

Environmental justice leaders have been skeptical of Pruitt from the start. The longtime EPA adversary repeatedly sued the agency in tandem with fossil fuel companies and other corporate interests, often arguing that the agency’s efforts to regulate pollution went beyond its legal authority.

EPA chief’s climate change denial is easily refuted by the EPA’s website

During his Senate confirmation process, Pruitt answered written questions from Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.). One of them read: “How do you define ‘environmental justice’? Do you think it’s a serious issue?”

“I am familiar with the concept of environmental justice,” Pruitt answered. “As I testified, the administrator plays an important role regarding environmental justice. I agree that it is important that all Americans be treated equally under the law, including the environmental laws.”

But Pruitt’s critics point to the hundreds of thousands of dollars he received from oil and gas companies during his political campaigns over the years. He also led the Republican Attorneys General Association, which received substantial sums of money from Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, Murray Energy and other firms. Since arriving at the EPA last month, he has taken early steps to beginning rolling back Obama-era regulations on everything from methane emissions to vehicle fuel standards.

“The future ain’t what it used to be at the EPA,” Pruitt recently told an audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 25 in Oxon Hill, Md. (Video: The Washington Post)

‘If I could afford to leave, I would.’ In Flint, a water crisis with no end in sight.

That’s a future for which Ali decided not to stick around.

“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. If we do our job properly, it can be a huge benefit. If not, it can have big ts.”

Michelle Roberts, national co-coordinator of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, said Thursday that Ali “played a significant role on the issue of environmental justice” by advocating within the EPA on behalf of low-income Americans and those of color. “People were able to have a seat at the table” though Ali’s work, Roberts said, noting that he also helped provide the grants and technical resources that allowed communities to show how they were being disproportionately affected by pollution.

Ali pressed for President Obama to issue a 2013 executive order that improved chemical plant safety, Roberts noted, and served as a crucial intermediary between the town of Mossville, La., and the company building a major plant nearby.

It is unclear whether the proposed cuts will remain in place when the White House releases its budget blueprint in mid-March, and any reductions would have to be approved by Congress through the appropriations process.

Here’s one part of the EPA that the agency’s new leader wants to protect

Ali also helped shape one of the last major EPA initiatives under the Obama administration — an “EJ 2020 Action Agenda” that would direct more enforcement resources to pollution-affected communities, focus on eliminating disparities in drinking water and air quality around the country and consider environmental justice issues in the agency’s rulemaking and permitting approaches. There have been few indications that the new administration intends to follow through on that plan.

Ali has taken a job as senior vice president at the Hip Hop Caucus, a nonprofit civil and human rights group that tries to foster grass-roots activism among younger Americans through hip-hop music and cultural events. “As one of the leading voices in the social justice movement, he has shown himself to be an extraordinary leader throughout his career and has a proven track record,” the group’s president, the Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., said in a statement.

On Thursday, Ali made his first public appearance for the group at an environmental justice conference in Flint, Mich., home to a poor community nearly three years into a crippling water contamination crisis.

Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report. 

More from Energy and Environment:

White House eyes plan to cut EPA staff by one-fifth, eliminating key programs

Humans have caused an explosion of never-before-seen minerals all over the Earth

Antarctic ice has set an unexpected record, and scientists are struggling to figure out why

For more, you can sign up for our weekly newsletter here and follow us on Twitter here.