Michele Roberts, a D.C.-based environmental justice activist, was one of the last public commenters to speak at the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council’s meeting in Alexandria on Nov. 29. (Kayla Benjamin/The Washington Informer)
Michele Roberts, a D.C.-based environmental justice activist, was one of the last public commenters to speak at the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council’s meeting in Alexandria on Nov. 29. (Kayla Benjamin/The Washington Informer)

Overview:

The council, which advises the Environmental Protection Agency on environmental justice matters, listened and responded to public comments for nearly four hours straight on their first of a three-day public meeting.

After more than two years of virtual-only work, 26 members of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) kicked off an in-person public meeting in Alexandria on Tuesday.

When the meeting first began, many members expressed joy at coming together. Hours later, as the council listened and responded to dozens of public commenters’ ongoing battles with toxic pollution, the mood began to change. 

“We get to a point where we’re done being sad about things. I’m angry,” NEJAC member Sylvia Orduño, a community organizer from Michigan, said.

Orduño was responding to testimony from Ana Parras, an environmental justice advocate from Houston. Parras shared her recent cancer diagnosis, which followed on the heels of her father’s passing from lung cancer. Thousands of petrochemical facilities surround her city. Despite nearly three decades of advocacy, she said she’d seen little change. 

The NEJAC advises the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on environmental justice issues. Its members include grassroots organizers, academics and officials from state, local and tribal governments. Founded in 1993, the council has little direct power but helps to connect communities to decision-makers at the EPA. 

A series of stories like Parras’, some in-person and some via video call, went on for several hours. The proceedings, originally scheduled to end at 7 p.m., stretched until almost 9 p.m. It was just day one of the three-day public meeting. 

The council’s sessions have so far addressed big changes at the federal level that impact environmental justice. Several have focused on equitable implementation of the many climate-change and environmental programs outlined in the Inflation Reduction Act. 

On Tuesday, prior to the public input session, the council met with leadership at the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights. The office just launched this fall, and is set to include more than 200 full-time positions—more than tripling the number of people currently focused on environmental justice at the agency. 

“It really feels like there’s an energy, a zeitgeist, around [environmental justice] right now,” said Sandra Smithers, a public commenter, during a break between sessions. She had come in person from her home in Delaware. Like Parras, Smithers has been fighting for her community for years. 

“We have to seize that energy now, because if we don’t, it might not come back for 40 or 50 years.”

Kayla Benjamin

Covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine writing stories...

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