Anytime where we can push the envelope on actually measuring and monitoring emissions from major facilities offers us a real win-win-win scenario. Facilities become much more efficient, the company removes a lot of liability, plus we remove a lot of pollution from the air. When we do have pollution events there's a higher likelihood that first responders and citizens will be better informed about what's going on and what sort of actual risk there might be in their community.
How has working in Houston prepared you to lead the EPA's environmental justice office?
Whether it's big national ambient air quality standards or toxics or health, the Gulf Coast -- particularly the Texas and Louisiana Gulf areas -- are really the crucible of a lot of these issues. We have the largest challenges, the most diverse challenges, the largest number of people that are suffering negative health impacts for the longest period of time, going back to the beginning of the 20th century.
That's not to discount any challenges that folks in other parts of the country have. But I couldn't be more well-prepared to move up and start looking at the entire suite of environmental justice communities around the United States than to have had this experience in Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast.
What is something unique about your background that will help you succeed at the EPA?
With my organization here in Houston we've always been a link between the community and regulators, and between industry and neighborhoods, and between national organizations and local groups and leaders. We've always played that bridging role.
At the EPA, will you be stuck behind a desk, or will you still be able to get out and work in the communities?
I don't know, that's going to be interesting. There's a whole diversity of environmental justice communities across the United States, from Puerto Rico to Alaska, so I'm really looking forward to meeting with more of those environmental justice community members and appreciating the similarities and also finding out what's unique about them.
Poor communities of color face an array of environmental health threats, including cancer, asthma, diabetes and heart disease. What are some of the biggest environmental health threats that need more attention?
With growth of trade and ports and goods movement and logistics, diesel particulate matter is a huge issue. It's a very difficult issue because of how well diesel engines have been made for such a long time, in terms of operation but not in terms of pollution control. There have been some really progressive steps in some parts of the country…but we're going to see the growth of goods movement all across the United States, inland and on the coast, and we really need a lot more attention paid to the fact that this diesel particulate matter is going to be a growing problem for communities that are already facing a lot of threats from traditional sources like refineries and chemical plants.
Something else that we're paying an increasing amount of attention to…is the reclamation of metals and of precious metals from shredding and recycling facilities. Those are facilities that, not all the time, but more likely than not, are located in or near environmental justice communities. And they're not very well regulated at any level.
If we do not learn any lessons from the past about the creation of environmental justice communities…we're going to create new ones. We really have to be proactive in dealing with environmental justice communities, to make sure we don't make our problem even worse by adding more communities to the list.
The EPA commissioned a work group to recommend a plan to reduce air pollutions from ports. The report came out in 2009, and critics have called the EPA's response to it disappointing. Will you make ports an environmental justice priority?