News | October 20, 2023

Keri Powell’s journey for clean air continues at SELC

The new leader of SELC’s Air Program on tackling polluting facilities and disproportionate environmental harm

We are thrilled to welcome one of the country’s preeminent clean air experts and leading litigators against big polluters to our organization.  

Keri Powell is the new leader of SELC’s Air Program, supported by the Carol Remmer Angle Endowment Fund for Community Health. 

Though she grew up playing outside in Macon, Georgia, Powell says she didn’t come from a family that engaged in environmental advocacy and was largely unaware of the work of environmental organizations like SELC. But once she learned she could make a career out environmental protection, she was all in.  

I’ve always been motivated by the core belief that all people have the right to breathe clean air.

Keri Powell

Read the conversation to learn more about Powell, how Ranger Rick inspired her to become an environmental attorney, and why we know she’s the right person to supercharge our litigation against biomass plants and other industrial and commercial facilities that contribute to toxic air pollution across the South. 

Will you share an early memory of enjoying nature? 

I grew up in Macon surrounded by woods. I was lucky to have a lot of freedom to go out and explore them with my friends. I could tell you where to lift a plant to find snails because the soil was moist, or where to find the ‘roly polys’ under the flowerpots. I could also tell you which flowerpots not to lift because there were probably going to be centipedes under them. I knew where the toad would be hanging out, and where you might find a box turtle. My connection to the natural world brought me joy and helped shape who I am today.  

Powell with members of a kids’ group she founded and led from 2012-2020 in in Decatur, Georgia. The group focused on environmental, science, and cultural education, outdoor recreation, and volunteer work.

At an early age, my grandmother gave me a subscription to the National Wildlife Federation’s Ranger Rick Magazine. I loved getting it in the mail and read it cover to cover. Sometimes I joke that Ranger Rick brought me into my career as an environmental attorney. 

So how did you get from reading Ranger Rick Magazine to being one of the nation’s leading environmental lawyers? 

It was only when I received my course catalog the summer before starting college that I realized there was an entire academic field of study on environmental protection. When applying to college, I thought I wanted to be a journalist, but the moment I saw those classes in the catalog, I just knew that was what I wanted to do with my life. 

One day during my freshman year, one of my professors handed me a flyer from a law school that had an environmental law program and suggested that I consider it. I tucked that little piece of paper into my files. Though I majored in Earth Science and did not know a single lawyer, I kept the idea of becoming an environmental lawyer in the back of my mind.  Years later, I still had that scrap of paper, and that small interaction with my professor led me to apply to law school. 

What did early clean air work look like for you, and subsequently, America? 

An organization I interned with during law school offered me a permanent job developing and running their air quality litigation project, which is a tall order for an attorney coming right out of law school. It was an amazing opportunity because I was given time and freedom to really dig in and figure out what would be most effective. 

An industry chimney pumps harmful smog into the atmosphere.
Many polluting facilities across the country operate without proper pollution controls.

I was in New York City, so I decided the most important thing was to make sure the air pollution operating permits for major polluters in New York were sufficient and complying with Clean Air Act requirements. Few environmental organizations were focused on this type of advocacy, and in no time, I came to be viewed as a national expert in air pollution permitting. Only a year or two after finishing law school, experienced public interest attorneys from across the country started calling me for advice.   

What do people find most surprising about controlling air pollution? 

While we live in a nation with abundant resources, and available technology can greatly reduce industrial air pollution, many facilities are operating without up-to-date air pollution controls. Most people don’t realize that there are many large facilities across the country, and in their own towns, that are operating with minimal air pollution controls.  

Most companies try to construct, modify, and expand their facilities as cheaply as possible, so government environmental regulators are under constant pressure to allow facilities to avoid installing controls. Public interest organizations like SELC play a critical role in advocating for regulators to resist that pressure and require companies to do what is needed to protect public health and the environment. 

How about in the South, specifically? 

Powell is pictured meeting with a community group and representatives from the North Carolina Division of Air Quality regarding the need to install pollution controls on a wood pellet manufacturing plant.

State environmental agencies in the South are desperately underfunded and don’t have a lot of political support. Sometimes polluters file applications with information that isn’t even correct and it’s difficult for government employees to uncover what’s really happening.  

I’ve found that in most cases, state agencies want to do the right thing. If we can show that a facility is violating the Clean Air Act, or that a facility’s emissions are higher than what the company claims, we have a pretty decent chance of getting better controls installed.  

I think it’s very important for SELC’s Air Program to let these agencies and companies know we are watching. 

What brought you back to the South? 

After a few years leading the air quality litigation project in New York, I took a job with the Washington, D.C. office of Earthjustice, a national public interest environmental law firm, to become better trained in how to litigate cases. I stayed for about eight years until I decided it was finally time for me to come back home. 

I had young kids and my parents and sister’s family were still here in Georgia. Moving back allowed my kids to grow up with their cousins. Also, I used the transition as an opportunity to work for Environmental Protection Agency in Atlanta.

Up until that point, much of my work had focused on trying to get EPA to do the right thing — petitioning for EPA’s objection to deficient air pollution permits and challenging deficient air regulations. Working at EPA allowed me to look behind the curtain and witness the positive impact my prior advocacy as a public interest attorney had on the agency’s implementation of the Clean Air Act. (Editor’s note: Powell is a former senior attorney for the Clean Air Act at EPA’s Region 4 Office in Atlanta.) 

How can SELC’s clean air work be a model for the rest of the country now? 

Map titled "Southeast U.S. Wood Pellet Plants Exporting to Europe".
SELC geospatial analysts created a map to show a concentration of wood pellet plants that release harmful pollution, like nitrogen oxide, and fine particles that can cause respiratory infections and asthma.

One of the most remarkable things we’re doing is using our geospatial analysts to examine the data needed to prioritize where SELC should focus our resources to ensure we’re addressing the most serious problems and the most serious environmental injustices created by air pollution. 

I view a lot of what we do as putting pressure on the government to do a better job. We’re great at hand-picking particularly dangerous air polluting facilities that are impacting communities, especially communities of color experiencing disproportionate environmental harm, and working with our partners on the ground to pressure EPA to put more resources into scrutinizing them. I hope this place-based method continues to catch on. 

After all this time, what still motivates you? 

I’ve always been motivated by the core belief that all people have the right to breathe clean air. I am especially concerned that so many people living around large polluters have little power.

All you have to do is a little math to find there is a much higher pollution burden being carried by communities of color and low wealth communities. Historically, it has been far too easy for government and industry leaders to ignore their needs. I’m dedicated to speaking truth to power — I dig deep into the facts and make it hard for the government and industry to skirt air quality laws. I’m most proud of my work when I am able to assist overburdened communities in getting their concerns heard and addressed.  

SELC holds industrial air polluters accountable.