Broken Ground | Season 4 | Episode 4

Brenda Mallory: Federal Action on Environmental Justice

Brenda Mallory, former Director of Regulatory Policy at SELC, sat down with us in December 2020 before joining the Biden administration as Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and reflected on how the federal government can engage a broad coalition to embed environmental justice principles across the country. 

Episode Transcript

 Brenda Mallory, former Director of Regulatory Policy at SELC, sat down with us in December 2020 before joining the Biden administration as Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and reflected on how the federal government can engage a broad coalition to embed environmental justice principles across the country.






HOST: This is Broken Ground, a podcast about environmental stories in the South, and the people at the heart of them. I’m Claudine Ebeid McElwain. In this episode, we continue our series about women in the South who are taking on environmental injustices through their work, their engagement with communities, their contributions at the government level and their words. At the time of this recording, SELC’s Director of Regulatory Policy Brenda Mallory is awaiting confirmation from the Senate to serve as chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, also known as CEQ.




HOST: The White House office basically coordinates policy across the government. Mallory will also oversee an office that plays an important role in the permitting of infrastructure projects from pipelines to highways and water treatment. All of these pieces figure into the bigger picture of environmental justice. And so we started our conversation there. This conversation was recorded in 2020.


CLAUDINE EBEID MCElWAIN: Um, and I’ve only had the chance to ever meet you over Zoom, sadly for me. Um, thank you so much for talking with us today.


BRENDA MALLORY: Sure, sure absolutely. No, it’s so funny I, I – a number of people have made the comment to me in the last, uh, you know, few days really, um, that we only met on Zoom, but yet Zoom, I feel like I still know you.


CLAUDINE: Same! Um, Brenda, the Biden administration has pushed forth both climate and equity as pillars of their work. We have heard them use the phrase as you have “environmental justice” in talking about what needs to happen as we deal with climate change in this country. How does – or should – the focus change the way CEQ and other agencies have done their work thus far?


BRENDA: I think that what the Biden Build Back Better plan does, and – especially as it relates to equity and environmental justice – is it recognizes that, you know, one of our areas of unfinished business over the last 50 years of the environmental protection, um, movement has been a failure to make sure that all communities are protected in the same way. And I think what the Build Back Better plan envisions is that we put in place the kinds of mechanisms in the federal government that will allow that kind of consideration to be front and center.


CLAUDINE: So let’s talk about the CEQ office you will be heading. It was established under the National Environmental Policy Act, um, also known as NEPA, for those of us wonks out there who know NEPA is.




CLAUDINE: NEPA nerds, I love it. Uh, this act was signed into law by president Nixon back in 1970, right. It’s considered a bedrock of environmental policy in our country. The Trump administration has recently overhauled the NEPA rules. Uh, a move that I should say the Southern Environmental Law Center has said will diminish public voices among other things. What role does NEPA play in climate justice? And what can the Biden administration do to restore NEPA at this point?


BRENDA: Yeah, I think sort of NEPA has been a really important tool for environmental justice advocates, among others. I mean, it is a mechanism to bring the voices of the community into the decision-making process and designed intentionally under the premise that when the federal government is engaged in major projects, that people who have a stake in those decisions ought to have, uh, the ability to share with their government, what they think about it, what the impacts are going to be and I think a strong belief that that information that comes from those various perspectives is important in ensuring that the federal government makes decisions that are more reasonable, that take into consideration all of the various impacts that are going to result from their decisions. So I think for all communities, it’s an important mechanism. It’s particularly important for environmental justice communities because often they don’t have the political power in an area to actually have other avenues in order to raise their concerns. So for example, if you happen to be a business entity and you have lobbyists that are taking care of your interest in other ways, who are meeting with the government and meeting with legislatures in different settings, your views are getting into the discussion. Often for communities there isn’t another vehicle. And so it’s really an important tool and has been an important tool, I think, over the years, uh, just in ensuring that there’s an understanding of what the potential impacts could be.


CLAUDINE: This absolutely feels like a watershed moment for the environmental movement in terms of focusing on environmental justice, placing climate and equity on a path together, and acknowledging that the path to sustainability has got to include safeguards for everyone. How do we ensure that this is not just a passing moment …




CLAUDINE: … but it’s a real lasting and meaningful shift in our country.


BRENDA: Yeah. That’s I mean, that is, that is actually the, in some ways, the most significant kind of goal of where we are. Because I feel like on race in general, um, and in particular, as it relates to environmental justice and environmental issues, there feels like an opportunity that we have not had before. And I, what I’m hopeful about is that there is such a broad range of people and entities and organizations that are sharing the same sense of the importance of actually making progress in this area that, that just the breadth of that alone has a, has more of a, kind of an expanding impact on the ability to, you know, have success. I mean, like the idea that we’re going to succeed on every issue seems like you know, in the long-term maybe, but in the short term, there are some, there are going to be things that don’t happen exactly the way I think people would, would want them to happen in terms of, of advocacy. But if you get to a point where there’s a recognition, really across sectors, across the country, across the, you know, even across the kind of international scope, that these are things that we have to confront and contend with, that’s huge. I think that creates the opportunity for it not to just be a four year like this is what the Biden plan wanted, and like we’re going to drop it and move on. And to me, one of the goals for CEQ is to help embed environmental justice considerations within the structure of the federal environmental program in a way that makes that much harder to ignore by a future administration. I mean, that, that is really, I think, an important feature of giving the level of priority to environmental justice in the White House that, that comes out of the structure that we have.


CLAUDINE: How does that get embedded? I mean, what are the mechanics behind how we embed environmental justice, um, teeth, I guess, into the work that’s being done?


BRENDA: I mean, I think really the idea of the environmental justice being anchored in, um, CEQ, both where NEPA is, but also where there has always been a home for trying to address sort of difficult environmental issues that involve like bringing everyone together and trying to hammer out approaches that makes sense, I think is important. And the mechanisms end up being the same tools that we use for, you know, for every other executive action. So there are opportunities to include within our regulatory program, things that, uh, more specifically refer to environmental justice, that, that don’t currently exist. You know, currently we have an executive order, which there’s been a lot of talk during, you know, building up to um, you know, through the Biden campaign about updating that executive order so that it makes sense in the context that we’re living today. So that’s, that’s something we’ll, that will be happening. But a step further is that if that were also reflected in the regulatory language that, you know, governs, um, that governs CEQ and NEPA programs. You know, I think there’s a real hope that there’s some language that gets actually reflected in statutes. Right? We didn’t win the congressional seats that I think people had hoped so that there would be, like, a kind of a clear majority in Congress that you could reliably count on but I don’t give up hope that there are provisions around which there might be an agreement that affect environmental justice and the way that communities are protected so that, you know, thinking about like what those opportunities might be. And then working with each of the agencies to kind of take a similar perspective on their structures, whether it’s through their kind of guidance documents or through their regulatory programs, if there are ways to kind of make important elements of environmental justice reflected in those structures, I think all of that is helpful and important.


CLAUDINE: Um, your, your father, Reverend Thomas Mallory was the associate pastor of the Zion Baptist church in Waterbury, Connecticut, where you grew up and you spent summers working at the Human Rights Commission. How did that experience inform your decision to focus on environmentalism? Or how did that experience kind of lead you to where you are today?


BRENDA: Yeah. Um, jeez, you know, I always feel like I don’t, I don’t really have an answer to that question moving forward. I have more of an answer to that question looking back.


CLAUDINE: Un-hunh.


BRENDA: Um, and, and when I look back and I think about what, like, my core sense of where we were moving as a country and the values that were important about how we keep, all people interacted with one another and where we were heading in terms of race relations and opportunities for all people in all communities, I, I thought we were in a place where the trajectory would have had us, one, further along than we are right now, and where the moment that I really experienced, you know, in most harshly as a result of the election of Donald Trump, it was shocking to me. It was like, I, it was just very hard to see a figure who really ran on you know, just pure racism be so popular. And so it made me feel as if that my understanding of where we had advanced as a country was not well informed. But I think that understanding really did grow from my sense of what was happening in the work that my father did and the work that others were doing, and thinking that it reflected change that went beyond just that community. And, in fact it, it does in some communities, but clearly not in all. Um, so just, I really feel like this last four years has really been a really significant movement in my own sense of the amount of work that’s left and what I want to do to be part of it. Right. Uh, what I feel really is my duty and obligation to do, to be part of it because, you know, I’ve had, in some ways, a very blessed life, uh, just in terms of opportunities and, you know, exposure. And it positions me, I think, to really help make a difference, and I, and I really hope that I do.


CLAUDINE: And, you know, looking back on the career you’ve had thus far, um, 17 years of work in the federal government. Is there one environmental win that stands out for you?


BRENDA: You know, that actually is always a hard question for me because there’s so many different kinds of wins, right. Um, I guess I would say, um, in April of 2007, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Massachusetts versus EPA. And that is the significant decision in which the court held that greenhouse gasses were pollutants. And from that the entire, you know, greenhouse gas regulatory program that EPA was developing started. And the moment is really crystallized for me because I’m walking down the hall in EPA, and there’s like literally screaming in the halls, uh, excitement at the decisions. So I have this very clear image of people being so excited because we lost, because this was a decision where EPA under the Bush administration was arguing that greenhouse gasses were not pollutants and the Supreme Court rejected that and so there was just, you know, great joy because this result, which was really, uh, critical and important for what happened in climate change, the regulations afterwards was, you know, causing just, you know, great excitement within the agency who believed that we should have been regulating in the area.


CLAUDINE: That’s so fascinating to think that members of the EPA, you know, people who are working in that agency now and in the last four years, are not in always direct lock step with the administration. You know, for, for the rest of us who aren’t there on the quote unquote inside, what do you think was going on for a lot of folks who had been working at the EPA for decades, um, to really put as the agency’s name states, environmental protections in place for Americans, what was going on for them over the last four years?


BRENDA:  Yeah, I mean, I think this is one of those issues that affects people differently, right? If you sign up to be a career public servant, you sign up to serve the administration, whoever it is, you know. It’s like you didn’t sign up to be on your team or a team that you control; you signed up to be a federal official, helping to put in place the policies of the administration. And, you know, they don’t always line up with what your personal views are, but the great thing about public servants and people, especially who, um, have been around for a long time, is they understand that role. I mean, they – it doesn’t stop them from making sure that – especially if they’re in roles of, any kind of role of authority – you know, I think people share what they think are the problems, the concerns with particular policies, how it lines up with what’s been done before, why they think it, it may have problems legally given the overall structure of the statute, but then ultimately a policymaker decides how they’re going to proceed and I think, uh, for most career officials, you stand down. Um, and I, that’s what I believe has been going on for the last four years. There’s a lot of, you know, disappointment, of course, on a personal level because people who have signed on to be part of that agency because of the great work that it did in protecting, uh, health and the environment, to see policies that are being put in place that are contrary to that is a very difficult personal, um, situation and I think a lot of people left for that reason. If you can’t tolerate that disconnect, then people move on. Um, and a lot of people have left the agency over the last few years. For those who stayed, I think they, you know, try to find a niche within a corner where they can continue to still do good. They, you know, recognize what their job is and what their role and responsibility is and try to carry out to the best that they can um, and, you know, wait for a realignment in some future administration because the administrations will continue to change.


CLAUDINE: So in just under four years, the Trump administration has rolled back more than a hundred environmental protections, many of which I am guessing you helped to put in place. What was it like for you personally to watch what’s happened the last four years?


BRENDA: Yeah. I mean, it’s really interesting. I mean, one of the things that I was really struck by in the very beginning of the Trump administration was how much focus there was in the, by the media on kind of that personal impact that it had on people to see things that they had worked so hard at change, when the real impact is the kind of loss of environmental protection, right? The loss of efforts to actually ensure that the public health was being protected to the greatest extent. And to me, that’s what, where my focus stayed, right? So I’ve looked at the hundred, you know, plus rules and I think, you know, you respond in part to the scale. I think the scale of the rollback that the Trump administration tried is just much greater in the environmental area than we’ve seen previously. You know, rollbacks in changes in policy I would say from one administration to another, that’s not uncommon. What’s uncommon is the way that this administration went about it. It was much, to a much greater extent. And in the beginning there was really much less concern about doing it consistent with the normal rules of the Administrative Procedure Act. They just went about, you know, trying to stop things without any regard to whether or not they were doing it in a way that was consistent with what the law required. And that’s why they’ve, they’ve had such a high loss rate on many of the cases. What’s important is for us to really focus on what this has meant for the public and for the, you know, protecting human health. I do, I do really feel like we have a tremendous moment and opportunity to really make a difference in areas that we have so far failed. And I just, I just hope that I’m able to actually contribute in a way that is meaningful in impact and encourage other people to also join. And I mean, people, all people, like this is not a thing that is going to be solved by people of color, uh, or the people who are impacted, or the, you know, people who are really suffering from this kind of injustice that, um, that we see. This really takes a broad community of people recognizing this as a human issue that deserves attention and that we should prioritize. So, I’m, like, hopeful that we can create that sense and that feeling of bringing everybody in to see how we can make this a country that is livable, like even thrivable for everyone.


CLAUDINE: Oh my gosh, Brenda, I can’t thank you enough for talking with me today.


BRENDA:  This is great.


HOST: Brenda Mallory is the Biden administration’s Chair on the Council of Environmental Quality. To hear more conversations with leaders in the environmental justice movement, visit our website Broken Ground podcast dot org. Thanks for listening and please subscribe and stay tuned to Broken Ground to hear what comes next. And you can support and learn more about the Southern Environmental Law Center at Southern Environment dot org.




KELLEY LIBBY: Broken Ground is a podcast by the Southern Environmental Law Center. It’s produced by Emily Richardson-Lorente, Jennie Daley and Kelley Libby, and hosted by Claudine Ebeid McElwain. The theme music is by Eric Knutson.