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Members of the U.S. Capitol Police arrest a climate activist as he participates in civil disobedience during a protest on Capitol Hill October 15, 2021 in Washington, D.C.

Members of the U.S. Capitol Police arrest a climate activist as he participates in civil disobedience during a protest on Capitol Hill October 15, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Environmental Justice Advocates Raise Alarm After White House Exits

Recent departures included the administration's top environmental justice official, who'd played "a pivotal role" in climate policies.

Andrea Germanos

The Biden administration's commitment to the advancement of environmental justice is the target of fresh doubt Thursday following departures in recent days of two key officials focused on the issue.

The administration's top environmental justice official, Cecilia Martinez—who served as senior director for environmental justice at the Council for Environmental Quality—announced her resignation last week.

She had been hailed by Earthjustice president Abigail Dillen as "a superb choice" for the CEQ role, as she's "dedicated her life's work to advancing equity and environmental justice all."

Martinez told the Associated Press, which first reported her resignation, that "it was a hard decision" to go. From AP:

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.

"Colleagues at the White House and in Congress say her departure is a loss," AP added, "since she played a pivotal role in centering disadvantaged communities in President Biden's environmental and climate policies."

And as Grist further noted:

Most notably under Martinez' leadership, the federal government has been working to create and implement the long-touted Justice40 initiative, through which the Biden administration committed to ensuring that 40 percent of government sustainability investments benefit the country's most pollution-burdened communities. The program is meant to guide the government's spending throughout the Biden administration, including spending from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the now-idled Build Back Better Act.

In a statement Thursday, CEQ chair Brenda Mallory said that Martinez was "the heart, soul, and mind of the most ambitious environmental justice agenda ever adopted by a president."

She continued by saying that Martinez "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."

Just days after Martinez's exit, the Council for Environmental Quality announced the departure of David Kieve, who served as director of public engagement at CEQ.

Kieve, who is married to White House communications director Kate Bedingfield, "was one of the Biden campaign's point people on outreach to environmentalist and climate groups during the 2020 campaign," The Hill reported.

White House counselor Steve Ricchetti said in a statement that Kieve's "advocacy and work on climate issues has made him an important ambassador for the president to the climate community, rallying their support behind our ambitious agenda to tackle the climate crisis, the existential threat of our time."

Their departures have reportedly rattled some inside the administration.

According to Politico, three members of Biden's White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council urged in a Monday letter to White House chief of staff Ron Klain that the administration install an environmental justice expert in the Climate Policy Office.

That office, established under Biden, is headed by Gina McCarthy.

Maria Lopez-Nuñez, an advisory council member and deputy director at the Ironbound Community Corporation, told Politico the fresh departures were "a big blow to being able to believe in the administration's seriousness to its commitment of environmental justice."

"Everybody that environmental justice people were connected with are gone," Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, told Politico. "I'm speechless."

"What's going on in D.C. right now is very bothersome to me," she added. "Black people—now I can't speak for anyone else—we're kind of feeling like we've been thrown under the bus."

In addition, the Climate Justice Alliance said in a tweet sharing Politico's story that the White House "was already too short-staffed to achieve its ambitious environmental justice goals, even before Brigitte Cecilia Martinez and David Kieve abruptly exited from the White House's Council on Environmental Quality."

As such, the need to work to defend those "on the fencelines of environmental injustices" is as clear as ever, said the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform (EJHA) and Coming Clean, two groups focused on racial justice and health issues.

In a joint statement following Martinez's departure, the networks expressed hope that CEQ would continue a "commitment to EJ moving forward so that all people can live, learn, work, play, and pray free from harm."

That requires CEQ to "remain steadfast and strengthen its commitments to environmental justice through new funding, policies, and actions that reach and benefit communities on the ground," the groups said, and for the administration to center environmental justice "in all levels of federal policy."

That push is especially notable in light of climate provisions in the Build Back Better Act being stalled in Congress, as well as criticism of the administration's broken promises on the planetary crisis.

"Not only is the Biden administration not doing enough to proactively address environmental injustices, they're creating more of them with the federal approval of new fossil fuel projects," tweeted climate activist and Fossil Free Media director Jamie Henn.

"Hopefully," he added, "these resignations will be a major wake-up call."

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