- Mustafa Aliformer head of the environmental justice program at the Environmental Protection Agency and vice president of the National Wildlife Federation.
We broadcast live from South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, where tonight the first-ever Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice will be held. Six presidential candidates — Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, Tom Steyer, Marianne Williamson, John Delaney and Joe Sestak — are participating. The forum is hosted by the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and leaders from frontline communities. South Carolina is a crucial state for the 2020 presidential race and one of the first that will have a Democratic primary, following New Hampshire and caucuses in Iowa and Nevada. The region has been repeatedly pummeled by climate-fueled hurricanes, including Hurricane Florence, which swept through the South in 2018, causing epic floods. Black residents and communities of color have faced disproportionate air and water pollution and exposure to environmental hazards, but South Carolina is also home to some of the most successful responses to environmental racism. Ahead of Friday’s presidential forum, we speak with Mustafa Ali, the forum’s co-moderator and the former head of the environmental justice program at the Environmental Protection Agency. “It’s important that we have these conversations about climate change, but those are the symptoms of a disease,” Ali says. “The disease has been the racism, the structural inequality, that continues to happen inside of communities of color.”
AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from South Carolina State University here in Orangeburg, where tonight, on this very stage, the first-ever Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice will be held. I’ll be co-moderating with former EPA official Mustafa Ali. All Democratic and Republican candidates were invited. Those that accepted and are coming to this forum are Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, Tom Steyer, Marianne Williamson, John Delaney and Joe Sestak. The forum will be hosted by the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and leaders from frontline communities.
South Carolina is a crucial state for the 2020 presidential race and one of the first that will have a Democratic primary following the New Hampshire primary and the caucuses in Iowa and Nevada. It will be the first measure of Democratic candidates’ strengths with black voters. In 2007, a Democratic presidential primary debate also took place right here on this stage.
South Carolina is a state where African-American communities and people of color are on the frontlines of fighting for justice in the face of extreme environmental racism for years. South Carolina has repeatedly been pummeled by climate-fueled hurricanes, including Florence, which swept through the South in 2018, causing epic floods. Its black residents have faced disproportionate air and water pollution, exposure to environmental hazards.
But South Carolina is also home to some of the most successful responses to environmental racism. The town of Spartanburg was once known as the Devil’s Triangle for its two abandoned industrial sites and a 30-acre dump. But it’s now being hailed as a model for environmental justice, after the community worked with the Environmental Protection Agency to invest in health centers and revitalize formerly devastated neighborhoods.
Well, we’re joined right here in Orangeburg, South Carolina, by Mustafa Ali, who I’ll be moderating the forum with tonight. He’s the former head of the environmental justice program at the Environmental Protection Agency. He’s a former leader in the Hip Hop Caucus and is now the vice president of the National Wildlife Federation.
Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to be with you here in Orangeburg.
MUSTAFA ALI: Thank you, Amy, for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about why you’ve chosen this site. Later in the broadcast, we’re going to talk about this moment in history 51 years ago when state troopers opened fire on students, before Kent State, before Jackson State. But right now we’re talking about this moment in history, in 2020, when there are a record number of candidates running for president. Why have you chosen this forum in South Carolina? And why the first Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice? What does that mean, environmental justice?
MUSTAFA ALI: Yeah. Well, it was important, one, to have it at a HBCU or a minority-serving institution, to make sure that folks understood that the students who go to school here care about what’s happening. They are voters, along with all of the community residents.
Also here in South Carolina, it’s ground zero. It’s ground zero for the pollution that folks are dealing with, with housing issues, transportation issues, and also the impacts from climate change. The floods that have happened, you know, have played a devastating role in people’s lives, in farmers’ lives. All these different folks are coming together. But also, as you sort of shared with folks, there are also these incredible leaders who are also helping to make real change happen.
So we have the environmental injustices that are happening that folks are focusing on, but we also have the change that’s happening, how people are revitalizing communities — Reverend Leo Woodberry, Harold Mitchell, Omar Muhammad — so many incredible leaders who are here, right now, making change happen.
AMY GOODMAN: So, this issue of environmental justice — I mean, CNN held a public town hall with the candidates on climate change. What is the difference?
MUSTAFA ALI: Well, environmental justice is dealing with these disproportionate impacts that are happening inside of communities. So, it’s important that we have these conversations about climate change, but those are the symptoms of a disease. And the disease has been the racism, the structural inequality that continues to happen inside of communities of color. So, disproportionately, those fossil fuel facilities are located in communities of color, lower-income communities and on indigenous lands. And people have, for decades, been dealing with the public health impacts, but also now those emissions are also a driver in warming up our oceans and warming up the planet. We also know that the transportation routes that have been used to extract wealth from certain communities and bring wealth into other communities and also drop pollution off plays a big role also in what’s going on with climate change. And then, the last thing is, we’ve got 2.2 million miles of pipeline. Most of that pipeline runs through indigenous land, low-income white land, runs through farmers’ land and ends up on the Gulf Coast in communities of color. All of these play a role in what’s going on with climate change. But there’s so much more in the environmental justice paradigm.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Mustafa, talk about the connection between environmental justice and health, the health impacts.
MUSTAFA ALI: Well, we have 100,000 people in our country who are dying prematurely from air pollution. That’s more than is dying from gun violence. Gun violence is extremely important for us to focus on, but when we’ve got this many people who are dying, then we need to be paying attention to the decisions that folks in Washington and and in statehouses are making. We’ve got 1.1 million kids in our country who have been lead poisoned. And primarily those are African-American and Latinx communities and lower-income white communities who are the ones who are being impacted. We’ve got 25 million people who have asthma. We’ve got 7 million kids, and disproportionately it’s African-American and Latino children who are the ones who are going to the emergency rooms and the ones who are losing their lives. So, these health impacts that are going on actually extract wealth from communities who can least afford to have that wealth extracted, because in many times they are underinsured or uninsured and folks who have to carry that cost.
AMY GOODMAN: And what is your assessment of the presidential candidates addressing this issue with their plans?
MUSTAFA ALI: Well, it’s great to see that folks have finally, after 40 years, have begun to actually have environmental justice platforms, climate justice platforms. And it’s great to see that some of the candidates are actually visiting these communities, frontline communities, sitting down with leaders. But there’s so much more that needs to happen, because a part of this forum is about accountability. Folks want to hear: What’s your vision? What are the actions you’re going to do? How are you going to build an administration that has expertise from frontline communities, indigenous leaders also in that? So, it’s great to see people saying the words; we need action behind the words.
AMY GOODMAN: And, I mean, we’re talking about both the Democrats and the Republicans. What’s happened under the Trump administration?
MUSTAFA ALI: Well, under the Trump administration, it has been deadly for many of our communities, because they have rolled back over 85 regulations, that, in many instances, just had the bare minimum of protections inside of our most vulnerable communities, everything from pulling out of the Clean Power Plan and replacing it with the ACE rule; the car rule, the clean car rule, which we know, again, those transportation routes having so much more pollution go off in those communities. You know, removing yourself from the Paris climate accord makes no sense, and it’s going to have huge impacts in our most vulnerable communities and communities across our country, in general. So, you know, we need to have leadership who is actually focused on helping to protect people’s lives and living up to when you take that oath.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break and come back, and we’ll be joined by several of the people who are participating in tonight’s forum. Again, we’re here at South Carolina State University. It’s a historically black college, one of the HBCUs, college and universities. It is the site of the Orangeburg massacre 51 years ago. And it is going to be the site tonight, on this very stage, of a Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice, the very first. We are joined by Mustafa Ali, who is formerly with Hip Hop Caucus, before that, for years with the Environmental Protection Agency. Now he’s vice president of the National Wildlife Federation. And he will be co-moderating the forum tonight with me. Yes, Democracy Now! is here, and we’ll be live-streaming this forum tonight at 6 p.m. Eastern Standard Time around the world. Many stations, radio and television stations, will also be broadcasting this forum. So we hope you do tune in at democracynow.org or on your local station. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.