Since becoming the chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality just over a year ago, Brenda Mallory has focused on addressing climate change and advancing environmental justice. Mallory is the council’s first Black chair, and she is not new to the fight for environmental protection and equity: she has been working in environmental law and policy since 1985. She started as a lawyer at a D.C. environmental law firm, then switched to government, where she worked at the Environmental Protection Agency for more than a decade and then as CEQ general counsel in the Obama White House.
With such a long career in environmental policy and public service under her belt, Mallory spoke with us about what Earth Day means from her perspective in the federal government.
What is Earth Day 2022 all about, and how is it the same or different from the first Earth Day in 1970?
It’s different, in that the complexity of the issues that we are dealing with and that we understand is much greater. So in 1970, we were tackling some severe problems: not clean water, not having clean water, not having clean air, having chemicals that were contaminating the environment. But we didn’t yet understand how that all fit together. And while climate change had been mentioned, as early as the ’70s, we really hadn’t done the kind of research on and analysis on that topic that we’ve done now.
So, fast-forward to today, and you see the tremendous focus by the administration on climate change and on all of the ways in which we have to adjust our behavior in order to tackle it. You see the administration focused on trying to deal with some of the legacy problems that in particular hurt environmental justice communities, that have to do with contamination, that have to do with air pollution. So I think that level of understanding for the Biden administration in particular, has really motivated us to really try to tackle some of these problems head-on in a way that I think we have not always done as a nation.
You mentioned environmental justice as a really key priority. What does Earth Day, and the environmental movement, generally, mean for American communities that are particularly vulnerable to hazards?
One of the things I have said before is that, for environmental justice communities, when you think about the 50 years of environmental policy that has existed, I would say the fact that we have environmental justice communities is a failure. It shows that we have not made our systems work in ways so that all people get the benefits of clean air, clean water, safe environments. And so the idea that we have to actually designate communities because they have suffered disinvestment, shows we didn’t do a good job before. But that’s why we as an administration are so focused and motivated on trying to make up for past failings.
I’m a local reporter here in D.C. I’m curious — what is the federal government doing to partner with cities on environmental issues?
The federal infrastructure, the way that it works is basically, in most cases, through the state and local governments. So a role that the federal government plays is to set standards on how things should be cleaned up, what the air quality impacts should look like. And then they end up getting applied by states and sometimes through local governments. So there’s basically a partnership, through the way that the environmental laws are structured, which gives us an opportunity to work very closely with state and local governments on all sorts of issues.
So you take water or clean water as an example. Issues that the DC Water agency has dealt with, you know, with respect to their wastewater problems have been issues that have been coordinated with, for example, the federal Environmental Protection Agency in setting up plans for cleanups and making sure that the water was addressed in ways that were protective. So there’s always going to be that kind of partnership with local governments.
I know you’re busy, so before you have to go — what should I be asking about that I haven’t thought of?
I think the one word I would leave you with is just that one of the things this administration has done very differently from some in the past is just given such tremendous focus on environmental issues from day one. And so I’m just grateful to be here and to be part of that, when we are turning to some of our key unaddressed environmental issues.