The White House's top official on environmental justice is stepping down a year after President Joe Biden took office with an ambitious plan to help disadvantaged communities and overhaul policies that have historically hurt them.
The departure Friday of Cecilia Martinez, senior director for environmental justice at the Council for Environmental Quality, puts a spotlight on both the administration's successes and promises yet to be fulfilled.
“It was a hard decision,” Martinez told the Associated Press in an interview Wednesday. She said that after many months of working on Biden's environmental policy, she needed time to rest and be with her family.
Colleagues at the White House and in Congress say her departure is a loss since she played a pivotal role in centering disadvantaged communities in President Biden’s environmental and climate policies.
“Her credibility in terms of environmental issues — in particular environmental justice issues — is going to be missed,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz, said.
Martinez helped develop then-candidate Joe Biden’s environmental justice agenda while he was campaigning by setting up meetings between Biden’s team and key environmental justice leaders from around the country. She went on to oversee a review of the Council on Environmental Quality as part of Biden’s transition team and was eventually appointed as the top ranking official on environmental justice in the administration.
“Cecilia has been the heart, soul, and mind of the most ambitious environmental justice agenda ever adopted by a President," Brenda Mallory, chair of the Council of Environmental Quality, said in a statement. “She is an unwavering and effective champion for the communities that, for far too long, have been overburdened by pollution and left out of government decisions that affect them."
Through executive orders and legislation, the administration has tried to direct resources toward disadvantaged communities, develop tools to monitor climate and economic justice and pass regulations to clean up the environment.
Some of that was accomplished. The White House’s Justice40 initiative mandated that 40% of benefits from federal investments in sustainable and green infrastructure, such as clean energy, pollution cleanup and water improvements, go to disadvantaged communities.
The administration also created a mapping tool that will help identify communities most in need of such investments.
And the Biden administration has restored dozens of environmental regulations rolled back during the Trump administration, including rules that limit the amount of toxic waste coming from coal plants, require extensive environmental reviews of major infrastructure projects, and protect endangered wildlife.
Martinez was central to much of that progress, but she and others in the White House say much more work remains to be done. She said everyone she has worked with on the federal level is "very much interested in communities holding us accountable.”
Reflecting on year one of Biden’s administration, environmental justice leaders around the country expressed disappointment and frustration at what they call a lack of progress and failure to protect communities most vulnerable to climate change, most exposed to pollution and that have the least access to environmental benefits such as clean water.
“I would say that overall there was some progress made in advancing environmental justice priorities more through executive actions than legislation,” said Juan Jhong-Chung, climate justice director at the nonprofit Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition. “But our communities are still waiting for the results on the ground.”
Some money from the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill will be spent on projects like cleaning up toxic waste sites.
But a lot more investment that would have gone toward environmental and climate justice initiatives in frontline communities likely will not be part of Biden's "Build Back Better" bill, a signature policy of the administration. Moderate Democrats have demanded cuts and it's unclear what, if any, part of the bill may eventually pass.
Dallas Goldtooth, campaign organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network, said Biden’s promises on environmental justice were an “over-commitment” and that the administration “has not been sincere in actualizing its ambitions.”
He also said the Biden administration has failed to protect indigenous communities from projects such as the Line3 and Dakota Access pipelines. Both oil pipelines were met with protests and legal challenges from indigenous and environmental groups who said that construction and operation of the pipelines could threaten the water and air quality in their communities.
But the Biden administration decided not to cancel the Line3 pipeline's permits and to keep the Dakota Access pipeline open while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted an environmental review.
Based on the mixed results of the first year of Biden’s environmental justice agenda, many environmental justice advocates are skeptical that the administration can deliver on its ambitious promises.
“It has been disappointing,” Goldtooth said. “I’ve got friends who are in the administration and … I’m cheering them on, but I also feel for them when their hands are tied.”
The White House has not said who might replace Martinez, a longtime environmental justice advocate from New Mexico whose research centered on effects of radiation poisoning and who founded the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit.
Follow Drew Costley on Twitter: @drewcostley
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.