Getting environmental justice right at the EPA

Canary talks to Lisa Garcia, regional administrator for the agency’s Region 2.
By Maria Virginia Olano

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Lisa Garcia was appointed by President Biden last year to serve as regional administrator for EPA Region 2. We caught up with her to discuss her priorities, the role of environmental justice both within her team and across the EPA, and how funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is being deployed. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Maria Virginia Olano: Tell me about your role at the EPA.

Lisa Garcia: I was appointed by President Biden to run EPA Region 2, which covers New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and eight federally recognized Indian Nations. I have family in Puerto Rico, I grew up in New Jersey, and I live in New York. It’s so important to protect the environment and public health in this area, but it’s also where my family and my friends live, so there’s a much more personal reason for me to be doing this work.

Olano: What are your top priorities for this region? 

Garcia: The general scope of the work is to protect public health and the environment, which includes protecting air and water resources. But the work of this administration expands beyond that core mission and focuses also on tackling environmental justice, reducing climate-change impacts and restoring science. An internal-facing priority of mine is building out a really great and diverse staff that can take this work forward. A lot of that centers around diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility.

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Olano: How does environmental justice figure into your work and into the work of the EPA across the board? 

Garcia: It really starts with looking at our own hiring and making sure we are sensitive and open, but then it also focuses on retention, so that once people are here they know that they are welcome and that they are excited about the work they are doing.

As for environmental justice, that is really my personal passion and something I want to make sure we are always prioritizing. So many decisions historically have led to disproportionate environmental impacts on low-income communities, communities of color, Indigenous and tribal communities. And so the work is both to address that legacy and remediate that harm — cleaning up superfund sites and brownfields, and reducing emissions from old facilities. And then the other part is more proactive, relating more to climate and reducing health disparities and maximizing benefits, through resiliency planning and new investments in infrastructure.

Olano: Is there a specific project that you’re currently working on that you’re excited about?

Garcia: There are so many! One that’s most immediate is working with the state of New York on what we can do for Mount Vernon [a city of 68,000 about 20 miles outside of Manhattan]. The city historically has had many water infrastructure problems, which have caused flooding and sewage runoff; there’s also some very old housing stock, which means there are still lead service lines. Its population is 80% Black and brown, so it represents a very typical environmental justice problem, and historically it has not had the resources and funding it has needed. A couple of weeks ago, the governor of New York announced a $150 million investment for water infrastructure in a state-county-city partnership. We are beginning to think about how to bring on the contractors and get started on these investments.

Olano: How is funding from the infrastructure bill passed last year being deployed in the regions where you work?

Garcia: The infusion of funding for infrastructure is certainly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For the EPA, this means $60 billion over the next five years to improve wastewater infrastructure, replace lead service lines and reduce the lead impacts on low-income communities, and also focus on other contaminants in drinking water, like PFAS. It’s the single largest investment in water that the federal government has ever made. So we really need to be thoughtful and make sure we are aligning that funding with our priorities, and doing so with a focus on equity and access. That is why I say once-in-a-lifetime” — not just because of the amount of funding, but because there is real intentionality this time to try to address some legacy issues.

Olano: The EPA plans to announce a new Clean School Bus rebate program for applicants to replace existing school buses with low- or zero-emission school buses. Can you tell me more about this?

Garcia: The plan is to spend $5 billion over five years, starting this year, to replace existing school buses with clean and zero-emission models. This initiative won’t benefit just the children riding those buses, but also their communities because of the impact those emissions have on public health. It’s a very big bucket of money that will be put to work on these public-health priorities.

Olano: The EPA also announced $3.8 million in grants to train environmental workers for jobs created with funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Can you tell me about this program, and what kinds of jobs it’s referring to?

Garcia: That program focuses on cleaning up brownfields. We have 1,600 brownfields here in Region 2, so there is unfortunately a lot of work to be done. The job training program offers an opportunity for unemployed residents historically affected by environmental pollution to gain the skills and certifications they need. So the grants would go to local institutions or universities to provide that education. We have found from previous programs like this that 70% of graduates have been placed in full-time jobs such as environmental field technicians, construction positions and administrative roles.

Olano: What are some of the challenges you are facing as you begin to deploy this funding? 

Garcia: In Puerto Rico and in the Virgin Islands, we are coming up against the need for workers, technical experts, contractors, etc. We are struggling to hire people, just because the funding has not been there previously. We want to help the economy by hiring local people to do the work, but in many cases, there just aren’t enough.

In some ways, this is a great problem to have, and we have to work with partners in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands to put our heads together about what we can do to move resources quickly and bring in the benefits for residents.

Olano: You mentioned that restoring science to the EPA’s work was a priority for you, which alludes to some of the changes that occurred under the previous administration. Why is this an important goal?

Garcia: The EPA is, at its heart, a regulatory agency, and we need to be able to understand how to bring about the most protective solutions in the face of flooding, sea-level rise, pollution — and those are all linked to climate change. Science is how we are able to do our work and understand how emissions flow, how to clean up air, how to build pollution control equipment, and what the public health impacts of all of these are. So science is the foundation without which we cannot do our work.

Hopefully, the public can be patient as we get the right projects in place and make sure that we listen to communities who haven’t been heard before. This is EJ 101: Make sure that the communities are at the table and helping design the solutions. It’s a great time to be at EPA. There are so many opportunities, but we need to be thoughtful as we build solutions.

Maria Virginia Olano is editorial producer at Canary Media.