Whos Getting Dumped On?

Mustafa Ali: resigned from the US government under Trump

Mustafa Ali
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 Mustafa Ali. Policy expert and community organizer, and former head of the EPA environmental justice program who resigned in 2017 after working in over 600 communities over 24 years as the Trump administration prepared to gut the agency. Illustration: Daniela Gilbon/The Guardian

Q: What role does the state play in creating environmental inequalities?

Environmental injustice is about [the state] creating sacrifice zones where we place everything which no one else wants. The justification is always an economic one, that it makes sense to build chemical plants on so-called cheap lands where poor people and people of color live, but which are only cheap because all the wealth and economic opportunities have been stripped out. The people who live in these areas are unseen, unheard and undervalued.

Environmental justice is about communities being able to reclaim their power, like Spartanburg in South Carolina, which received a $20,000 EPA environmental justice grant [to help clean up contaminated industrial sites], which it leveraged to almost $300m [from public and private sources, to build housing, a job training facility and health centers on the rehabilitated lands].

It took a long, long time to build trust with communities, create statutes and programs, which are now being dismantled. The cuts to the EPA proposed by the Trump administration are about protecting the industries which supported Trump’s campaign, and power and discrimination. It’s about showing communities of color and poor communities the administration can do whatever it wants to them because their lives don’t matter.

LeeAnne Walters: Flint’s prize-winning activist

LeeAnne Walters
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 LeeAnne Walters. Flint resident, community activist and winner of the 2018 Goldman environmental prize who helped expose the scandal by convincing the city to test the lead-contaminated water. Illustration: Daniela Gilbon/The Guardian

Q: What did we learn from the Flint scandal, in which 100,000 residents were exposed to excessive lead from their tap water?

The Flint scandal showed the American people and the world that access to clean water in the US is not always a given. It showed that we have testing methods that are flawed, and we need them fixed, and that sometimes the people who are paid to protect us don’t always do what is in our best interests. It has become my personal mission to make sure we get the Lead and Copper Rule [a federal regulation which limits the concentration of these heavy metals in public drinking water] changed so it protects people like it’s supposed to. I want everyone to know that as of today the EPA has not kept its promises to fix the laws, and still allows states to cheat on water testing.

Q: How can people get involved in the struggle for environmental justice?

I was an ordinary citizen compelled to take action after watching my children break out in rashes, scream in agony from taking a bath, unexplained illnesses, losing their hair and being told the problem was specific to my house even though the same things were happening to children all over Flint.

I made the decision to teach myself about how water is treated, about federal laws and about how to properly test water, because listening to governmental officials lie to my face disgusted me. When situations like this happen, everyday people need to protect themselves. They need to follow their gut if they feel something is wrong. They need to unite because together we are stronger.

Sit down in your groups and communities and figure out people’s strengths. You will have defeats – use those as learning experiences. You will have victories, rejoice when those happen. Our environment plays a huge role in our health and future generations’ health, so it is our duty as ordinary people to protect it and fight back. We can make a difference.

To contact Nina Lakhani, the Guardian’s new environmental justice reporter, e-mail nina.lakhani@theguardian.com.

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