An Advocate in Pursuit of Environmental Justice at EPA

Matthew Tejada is taking over the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice after helping low-income communities in Houston fight air pollution in their neighborhoods. He talks to Yale Environment 360 about how his work in Texas prepared him for the challenges of his new post.

After five years of working with low-income and minority communities in Texas, Matthew Tejada brings on-the-ground experience to his new job as director of the Office of Environmental Justice at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Tejada, 33, took over his EPA post this week after leading Air Alliance Houston, where he helped organize communities along the Texas Gulf Coast to fight air pollution from chemical plants, oil refineries, and the shipping industry.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Ben Goldfarb, Tejada explained how he sees his role at the EPA as an advocate for environmental justice, a concept that first emerged in the 1980s and focuses on the pollution burdens often placed on poor and minority neighborhoods. Tejada, who credits former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson with making this issue a priority, talked about why he thinks his work as a community advocate in Houston will help in his new job, why it is important for environmental organizations to build coalitions with grassroots groups, and how he sees “similarities across environmental justice communities, whether they’re in Puerto Rico or in Kansas.”

“I want to get more help to these communities,” Tejada said, “to make sure that whatever we can do, it’s being done.”

Yale Environment 360: You’ve said that your job as director of the EPA’s environmental justice office will be to make sure that environmental justice had a chair in government decision-making. It almost sounds like you’re going to be an activist within the EPA.

Matthew Tejada: No, I wouldn’t characterize that as accurate at all. This job is about making sure that environmental justice is considered in every part of the EPA and also reaching out to other agencies — for instance, at the Department of Transportation, or at HUD [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] — to make sure that they understand what environmental justice is and when it should be a consideration. It’s about reaching across agency lines and working with other folks in the government to make sure that we’re giving environmental justice its proper consideration.

e360: When you go across agency lines, as you just described, how would you go about explaining to them what environmental justice is?

Tejada: Well, that’s actually something that [former EPA Administrator] Lisa Jackson and folks in her administration have been doing for the past four years. One of the very positive things that EPA has been working on is holding environmental justice interagency working groups, with over a dozen federal agencies. It’s a monthly meeting, with fairly high-level officials from all of these different agencies getting together to discuss environmental justice issues, and just understanding better what environmental justice means.

Last summer, I accompanied some of my colleagues [from community groups] from the West Coast and New Jersey to one of those meetings, to sit in a room with officials from over a dozen agencies and talk about the impact of goods movement on environmental justice. That’s a new impact that folks haven’t been considering much yet, but we need to show folks what these environmental justice impacts are. We need to connect them to communities and make sure communities have a voice and are being heard by people in government.

e360: What are some of the primary environmental justice concerns related to the movement of goods? Is it particulate matter produced by fuel emissions?

Tejada: That’s a huge part of it. There are large minority communities and low socioeconomic levels in many port areas — they’re next to refineries or chemical plants or energy facilities or waste sites. Ports around the United States are expanding as our trade continues to develop.

And that will continue to bring increasing, or in some cases completely new, threats to those communities — whether they be new types of commodities that are going to be exported and imported, or just an overall increase in the number of locomotives and trucks and diesel particulate matter. In many cases, those additional threats are facing communities that are already experiencing many threats. We need to make sure that people understand that there are environmental justice communities in these vicinities. And we need to be very thoughtful about not increasing the burden on these communities.

“This job is about making sure that environmental justice is considered in every part of the EPA.”

e360: How do you go about identifying communities where environmental justice is particularly a concern?

Tejada: Over the past couple of years, the EPA has already been developing an environmental justice mapping tool that looks for the classic definitions of environmental justice, that can be used to look for communities around the United States that can be defined as environmental justice communities.

e360: What makes an environmental justice community?

Tejada: Well, there’s the academic, sociological definition: a community with a minority population of a lower socioeconomic level that has been surrounded and impacted by dangerous or dirty facilities, processes, dumps, whatever. In general, these are typically communities that need the most help, but receive the least. I want to get more help to these communities, to make sure that whatever we can do, it’s being done.

e360: Why do you think you were hired to be director of the EPA’s environmental justice office?

Tejada: The biggest thing is that I’ve been out in the community for the last five-and-a-half years, working with environmental justice communities and acting as a partner to those communities, and seeing it from the side of folks who live in environmental justice communities. That’s not to say that I’m truly an environmental justice community member — I’ll never be able to fully appreciate what it means to be an EJ community member. But I’ve been working with them to try to alleviate their issues. I think that brings a unique and valuable perspective to the agency.

e360: When you’re representing a locally-based advocacy group like Air Alliance Houston, it might be easier to be responsive to the needs of communities than it is when you’re at a large government agency. Working through the EPA might confer some different challenges.

Tejada: Absolutely. I’m going to be interacting with communities on these issues from a different perspective. But at EPA, I’ll have different tools and different ways to positively effect change for these communities. And of course, I’ll be looking at communities across the United States, rather than just the Texas Gulf Coast.

e360: You mentioned that you have experience with incorporating many different perspectives into a holistic understanding of environmental justice problems. Can you explain how you’ve done that as the director of Air Alliance Houston?

Tejada: We’ve been working in one particular environmental justice community in the Houston area, called Galena Park, for the last two or three years. Our interest in Galena Park is that it has some really poor air quality — both from toxics from major point sources, and from diesel particulate matter from trucks and ships in the shipping channel. They’re facing many different air quality threats.

But aside from that, they have a lot of other issues: lack of access to health care, lack of access to healthy foods, a lack of transportation and transit options. There are so many issues affecting that community. And Air Alliance Houston cannot expect to go into that community and find partners and build a coalition if all we want to do is talk about the air quality issue. So we talk about the air quality issue, and we do a lot of programs related to air quality — but we also try to help them with their access to health care, we try to find someone to bring in healthier food options. We’ve been working with Metro, our transit operator in the Houston region, to figure out a better way to get them more bus options to get them in and out of the community.

“Whatever you’re advocating for, you have to start with that grassroots foundation.”

To me, that’s one of the really exciting and interesting things about environmental justice: It really is a nexus of so many different issues. There are so many things that impact environmental justice communities, and there are so many factors that have to be understood and accounted for when dealing with environmental justice communities. The most important thing, at the end of the day, is that you’re actually making people’s lives better.

e360: Where do you start your assessment when you go into a community?

Tejada: Well, from the nonprofit side, the most important thing, the starting point for anything we want to do has to be grassroots outreach. Whatever you’re advocating for — whether it’s climate change or [controlling] industrial toxics or improved diesel engines or anything else — you have to start with that grassroots foundation. And that’s something that a lot of the big [environmental] organizations are starting to realize. It’s been a major reason why some things haven’t been successful over the last five or ten years, why the environmental community has lost on some really big issues. We didn’t put the time or the resources or the effort into building a true grassroots foundation for our advocacy platform.

e360: There was that recent Harvard paper by Theda Skocpol about why cap-and-trade failed in 2010, and it seemed like a lack of grassroots organizing was the major reason.

Tejada: Absolutely. And a lot of the national leaders in the environmental community agreed with that, although many didn’t. A lot of these organizations, unfortunately, are still ignoring that lesson. And I hope that the environmental community will wake up and realize that they have to start putting their money where their mouth is, and putting their efforts and their resources and their time to environmental justice communities, and giving environmental justice leaders an equal place at the table.

e360: Once you’ve developed your grassroots coalition and determined what the community wants to work on, how do you go about changing the practices of established industries like shipping or petrochemical refining?

Tejada: I think the most valuable thing about Air Alliance Houston is that it creates relationships. I’ve always put a lot of importance on that. Your first option should not be to go to the ramparts and file a lawsuit or flame people in the press. You should start with diplomacy, you should start with relationship building, and you should really try to find common ground with the stakeholders of any issue — whether it’s industry, local government, county or state government, regulators. You can get a lot more done, more effectively and much quicker, if you start by reaching out and talking to folks about the issue, and try to understand their perspective, and try to communicate your own perspective, and the community’s perspective.

“There are environmental justice communities everywhere you look in the United States.”

e360: Is there a particular policy success with Air Alliance Houston that you’re especially proud of?

Tejada: We first became involved in Galena Park because it was the worst area in the entire state of Texas for particulate matter. One of the big issues in Galena Park was that the major trucking route that goes right through the heart of that community had been completely destroyed by trucks. The trucks were struggling to get through the road, and it was causing a lot of diesel exhaust, and a lot of dust to be kicked up, and it was just a dangerous road. But it was also the main road for the community. It was a bad situation on a lot of levels.

We managed to scrape together $9 million of funding to repave and reconstruct the road. And the new road has really helped reduce the particular matter problem at the edge of the community. But it’s also meant that folks have a better and safer way to access their community, to get in and out — it’s really improved their quality of life.

e360: There are also a number of significant disease clusters in the Houston area — for example, there’s a serious cluster of childhood leukemia near the Houston Ship Channel caused by contaminated air. Have you tried to combat those disease clusters?

Tejada: That’s been another one of our big successes. A number of studies have looked at cancer, or birth defects, or other problems in these toxic hotspots, and related them to environmental conditions. The [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality] had a program in place to deal with toxic hotspots, and we worked with that agency to completely reform the program over the last 18 to 24 months. And it’s a much stronger program today. That’s not to say that it wasn’t working before, but now we have a program that thoroughly and thoughtfully identifies the hotspots and then moves through a process to make sure the state is doing everything it can to reduce that toxic hotspot. We’ve tried to alleviate levels of air toxins like benzene, butadiene, or toluene — toxins produced by refineries, chemical plants, and transportation of chemicals.

e360: You mentioned you’ll be using the tools that the EPA has developed to identify areas of priority. Do you have any sense yet of where in the country, besides the Gulf area, you’ll be concentrating?

Tejada: No, and that’s one of the challenges. You can’t concentrate on one area to the exclusion of others. There are environmental justice communities across the entire country in urban areas, suburban areas, rural areas, on [Indian] reservations. There are environmental justice communities everywhere you look in the United States, and they all deserve equal treatment and consideration and effort from the government.

e360: Does the EPA have people focused on environmental justice on the ground in a lot of these places?

Tejada: Yes, each region has environmental justice staff. I’ve already been in contact with folks in environmental justice positions everywhere from Oregon to Florida. I even got a call from Hawaii… It’s going to be interesting to learn more about all of these communities, to learn their unique aspects and also to figure out the similarities across environmental justice communities, whether they’re in Puerto Rico or in Kansas.