Biden shortlist for White House key environmental post shows focus on environmental justice

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President-elect Joe Biden is vetting three environmental justice leaders to head up the White House agency that will take the lead in coordinating efforts to safeguard communities disproportionately affected by pollution, according to sources familiar with the process.

FILE PHOTO: Mustafa Santiago Ali speaks at the Netroots Nation annual conference for political progressives in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S., August 3, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman/File Photo

The shortlist for head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) signals a focus by the incoming Biden administration on environmental policies that aim to ensure improved clean air and water for poor and minority communities that have historically taken the brunt of industrial pollution.

The Biden transition team is considering Mustafa Santiago Ali, Cecilia Martinez and Brenda Mallory to lead the CEQ, according to three sources familiar with the process. The position requires Senate confirmation.

A spokesman for the transition team declined to comment on possible appointments.

Ali is vice president for environmental justice at the National Wildlife Federation and a former senior adviser for environmental justice at the Environmental Protection Agency.

He did not confirm whether he was being vetted, but told Reuters the incoming administration should make sure federal agencies consider how industrial permitting affects surrounding communities.

“We will need to do a full environmental justice analysis across all agencies, which would make sure we are addressing the gaps and not causing additional impacts on communities that are unseen and unheard,” he said.

Martinez is an adviser to the Biden team handling the transition at CEQ, and is president of the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy, an organization that provides research to environmental justice groups.

She did not confirm if she was being vetted, and downplayed the possibility she would be picked.

Mallory is head of regulatory affairs at the Southern Environmental Law Center and previously served as general counsel for the CEQ.

She said CEQ was the right agency to carry out Biden’s environmental justice agenda because of its oversight of federal environmental permitting and engagement with outside stakeholder groups. But she added that Biden would need to increase the office staff “if environmental justice were to be elevated.”

Mallory said she was aware of being under consideration for a role in the administration but had not yet been vetted.

One source close to the transition team said the incoming administration also started final vetting this week for three finalists to head up the EPA - California air regulator Mary Nichols, clean air advocate Heather McTeer Toney, and National Wildlife Federation Chief Executive and Biden adviser Collin O’Mara. An announcement would likely come after other positions, such as attorney general, were named, the source said.

Nichols and McTeer Toney told Reuters they would be interested in heading up the EPA. O’Mara declined to comment.

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici and Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Peter Cooney