Matthew Tejada has been tapped as the EPA's new Director for the Office of Environmental Justice. As executive director of the Air Alliance Houston for five years, Tejada fought against pollution in poor neighborhoods surrounding Gulf Coast ports.
Expected to begin his new role in early March, he'll have no shortage of challenges ahead. As EHN's series, Pollution, Poverty, People of Color, highlighted last summer, a legacy of lingering environmental problems and new dangers are jeopardizing people of color in low-income communities nationwide.
The pollution problems Tejada faced in Houston and along the Gulf Coast are some of the nation's most serious. Low-income neighborhoods near the Ship Channel, which connects Houston to Galveston Bay, have been plagued with air pollution from oil refineries, chemical plants and the shipping industry. Children living within two miles of the Ship Channel have a 56 percent higher risk for childhood leukemia than those living more than 10 miles away, according to one study. The Houston area also has some of the nation's worst smog.
EHN spoke with Tejada to find out if he, as one activist wonders, "has the guts" for the job.
Thanks for speaking with us, Dr. Tejada. What will be your role as the EPA's new Director for the Office of Environmental Justice?
Since Lisa Jackson has been administrator of the EPA, they have systematically gone through what environmental justice means within the agency, and also what environmental justice means outside of the agency, and tried to fill in some very important gaps, whether it be permitting or enforcement or different sorts of rule-making, to make sure environmental justice had its requisite chair at the table. I see it as my job to get in there and make use of these new rules or these new positions for environmental justice in decision-making processes, really implementing the fundamental groundwork that's been laid over the past several years.
Do you see any hurdles ahead as you make the switch from activist to government official?
I think that's really one of the considerations they made in going for somebody with my background. Environmental justice has had a very ambiguous place within the huge federal bureaucracy, and it doesn't have a very clear line of authority. So it's really going to take somebody that's hopefully going to be given the room to advocate for environmental justice within the agency and within the federal government.
I think that's part of why my candidacy was eventually successful is they feel like I can be a very reasonable but effective advocate for environmental justice issues throughout the EPA and, hopefully, throughout the federal government.
The term "environmental racism" has been around for 30 years. How do you feel about this term and what can be done about it?
I think it's obvious that there is still environmental racism that exists in the United States. Acknowledging that is the first step. This does occur in the United States, and will continue to occur in the United States, until we really take a holistic view of the impacts from industry or transportation or from trade.
Houston, where you work today, has had decades of problems, like many communities near large petrochemical facilities. Yet emissions near the Ship Channel remain high and there is a large risk of childhood cancer, asthma and other public health problems. What needs to be done here and in other communities that are near giant petrochemical complexes?