Mar 5th, 2021, 11:30 PM

In Conversation with the Environmental Protection Agency

By Sofia Quintero
Image Credit: André Robillard Via Unsplash
AUP community joined four members of the EPA via Zoom to discuss environmental justice, race, and equal protection.

What would have been another unexciting Friday evening, turned into an educational, networking experience. On Friday, February 26, over 50 students and staff from AUP joined EPA representatives Kelly Witter, Holly Wilson, Matthew Tejada, and Tai Lung on a fascinating discussion and open panel regarding environmental justice. Among others, the panel's major takeaway was learning about what environmental issues mean for different people. Depending on where your social-economic standing and living situation is, these issues can even be a matter of life or death.

Alayna Amrein, a junior at AUP pursuing a double major in History, Law, and Society and Environmental Studies, was one of the organizers of the event. Co-hosted by the Black and Abroad with the Advisory Board on Environmental Sustainability, Amrein explained that she helped connect these two AUP groups with the EPA through her own network. As a board member on the Board of Environmental Sustainability, Amrein met up with Kelly Witter, one of the panelists, who then gathered the rest of the speakers. 

When thinking about environmental justice, what first tends to come to mind are animals and natural reserves conservation. As soon as the Zoom call began, Matthew Tejeda, the Office of Environmental Justice director, explained that contrary to popular belief, the EPA has nothing to do with animals. As the United States Environmental Protection Agency, their job focuses on protecting human health and the environment, helping the low-income and underserved populations of the US, and improving the country's overall public health. Now more than ever, environmental justice issues deserve urgency as Amrein says that, "the core of this issue is an urgency to restore communities that are actively being touched by environmental issues like toxic waste, non-potable water, etc. These issues are changing everyday lives and the lives of future generations via their negative health effects and the destruction of the land." 

Image Credit: Unsplash Via Markus Spiske

The first 40 minutes of the panel were given to the representatives. They explained what their job entails and what their experience has been like working with the EPA. Matthew Tejada began by giving the bigger picture of what the EPA does. "We try to improve all aspects from air pollution, tailpipe pollution, factories, and manufacturing plants to water quality, contamination in the ground, and municipal landfills." Tejada also explained that because they are part of the US government's executive branch, they work alongside the Departments of Transportation, Energy, and Housing. 

After Tejada presented, the floor was given to Kelly Witter, the EPA's director of Research Triangle Park's Community (RTP) Engagement and STEM Education Program. Working specifically with low-income communities, Witter is inspired by protecting human health and the environment. By educating the future decision-makers, she works, "to help close the opportunity gap and build capacity for a more diverse workforce." Often working in communities with a higher population of African American or Latino kids, Witter educates students of all ages, "to increase their awareness of how they can make a difference in protecting the environment and human health."  

The third speaker was Holly Wilson, who works in the office of air and radiation. She is in charge of writing laws for the control of sources that produce high emissions in specific communities. From power and chemical plants to gas pipes, Wilson explains it all comes down to, "giving the community a voice, explain the process of rulemaking, and get their input, which is then implemented in the work and rules that are developed."

The final speaker was Tai Lung, a program analyst who leads the mapping and data processes at the EPA. He explained what the EJSCREEN tool is and how it has improved their work done daily. The critical function of the EJSCREEN tool, "is to take demographic information and environment to highlight the places that are specifically vulnerable so they can make sure the work they are doing is impacting the people that need it the most," he explained. 

The concluding portion of the panel began with the open Q&A session. Amrein asked the panel what they thought was the most pressing environmental issue today. Tejada and Lung both agreed that environmental justice issues should be the first step that reparative environmental organizations should take. Amrein agrees with this, as she believes that, "We should be first focusing on the issues that are directly and actively touching people and communities." She hopes that students feel, "inspired to use whatever their discipline is and put it to use for issues regarding environmental justice." 

AUP's President Celeste Schenck also participated in the discussion, as she initially suggested the idea of making a collaborative event between the Black and Abroad club and the Advisory Board on Environmental Sustainability. She turned to AUP students and the AUP community to develop ideas and proposals for projects that students can do on campus. Amrein suggests that students can join clubs such as AUP Green or join the Environmental and Community Service Committee. 

Holly Wilson, ended the discussion with a phrase that left many inspired to take action, "Get involved, educate yourself, and don't grow weary."