Environmental Justice Interview: Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome

February 11th marked the 20th anniversary of Executive Order 12898: Federal actions to address environmental justice in minority populations and low-income populations. To commemorate that milestone, I spoke with Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome, federal policy analyst with MCAF partner,WE ACT for Environmental Justice.

Here are excerpts from our interview:

MCAF: Please tell me about the Executive Order.

Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome: The goal of the Executive Order was to make sure that federal agencies included consideration for how their actions impact low-income communities of color. This was the first official recognition that we need to make sure our federal agencies are not overlooking populations that can be harmed by their policies. What's interesting is that the concerns of 20 years ago are still the concerns of today. There is still so much more to be done.

What are the top priorities of the environmental justice movement?

Enforcement and compliance. Holding industry accountable. Sometimes industry can get away with air or water emissions, and the compliance and enforcement is not there. Sometimes inspections don't happen. There's still no metric as to how permits are accepted at the state and local level. If you already have 3 or 4 facilities permitted in a certain area, can it take another facility? Will you actually grant this permit? What we want to see is some type of cumulative impact policy, looking at how permitting decisions are going to either help or harm the community.

What is cumulative risk?

Cumulative risk is taking into account multiple things going on in a community. You might have a plant that is putting out nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, and a facility that has an operating permit to release a certain amount of chemicals into the water, and a landfill that's sited near a residential area. Pollution really doesn't happen in silos. Because people don't live in silos, and people are exposed to different things at the same time.

What is a hot spot?

A hot spot is a place that has a whole bunch of pollution sources at one point, and those pollution sources have led to obvious health impacts. In Northern Manhattan, we have 8 bus depots where buses come to get fixed, they idle; we have a massive transit system of buses; we have a wastewater treatment plant. We also have in that community some of the highest rates of asthma, possibly linked to some of the emissions and exposures. It's more asthma than your typical community. So that's a hot spot.

My hometown of Detroit is another example. We have the Marathon Oil refinery in an area that is majority Latino, Hispanic, Dominican, and African American. That area has the refinery, a wastewater treatment plant, lots of light industry, and some heavy industry too. There's high rates of cancer, of cardiovascular disease, that has burdened that community.

How does climate change fit in with environmental justice?

Several years ago, members of the environmental justice community got together and created a set of principles called the Climate Justice Principles. Environmental justice communities are already dealing with pollution. Think about the added stress that climate change adds. Therein lies the challenge. How do you address something when you're already overburdened by what you're dealing with on a daily basis? So whether you are a coastal community in New York, or you are living in the center of Baltimore dealing with heat stress, climate is something that impacts communities already burdened with pollution more than others.

What do you want to see happen to address climate change?

The national coalition that we coordinate out of this office, the Environmental Justice Leadership Forum on Climate Change, has identified a couple of key elements. When you talk about policies to mitigate carbon or to reduce carbon emissions, it's essential to engage members of environmental justice communities that have expertise in these areas. Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is one example. There was a plan to build a huge CCS facility in one community that's already overburdened with industrial pollution. That community was able to successfully halt the creation of this new carbon capture plant. We need to make sure that new technology is not going to make the situation worse for communities.

What would you say to moms who want to get involved?

Being the mom of two little girls and having a husband with asthma, I think the first thing is just educating our children. Children are so much smarter than people realize. My daughter gets a kick out of the work that I do, and she asks questions, and she is really able to be this little spokesperson on a lot of different issues. Children are the ones who are going to have to deal with all these things that we've put on them in this world. From a mom perspective, I want my kids to be engaged and get involved, and see the importance of this work, and know that they can make a difference even with their one little voice.

Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome is a Federal Policy Analyst for WE ACT for Environmental Justice (WE ACT) staffing their Washington, DC Legislative office. In this capacity, she engages in advocacy and education on Capitol Hill, while monitoring Administrative actions, to ensure an environmental justice perspective is included in legislative and regulatory conversations on a variety of environmental issues. Beyond federal policy, Jalonne conducts research with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the University Of Michigan School Of Public Health, focused on the impacts of climate change on vulnerable populations and local level adaptation. As a result of her doctoral work, she had the opportunity to engage in community based outreach and shape local policy to help address health impacts on the elderly. Jalonne is currently an adjunct professor at Kettering University (Flint, Michigan), and a Professorial Lecturer at The George Washington University in Washington, DC. As part of her personal mission to increase environmental awareness and stewardship, she and her husband founded EGE2(Empowering a Green Environment and Economy), L.L.C, in 2009 to provide environmental education and consulting services. Outside of work, Jalonne is a proud mother of 2.