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01:37 - Source: CNN

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Mustafa Ali was the assistant associate administrator for environmental justice

Underserved communities are struggling to receive equal protections before the law, he wrote

CNN  — 

An Environmental Protection Agency veteran resigned after more than 20 years at the department amid concerns about the Trump administration’s approach to addressing environmental issues impacting underserved communities.

“I have priorities in supporting vulnerable communities,” Mustafa Ali told CNN. “I thought first I’d be patient and see what the administration would focus on, but I have not seen or heard any indication the administration plans to work with vulnerable communities as it relates to environmental protection.”

Ali was the assistant associate administrator for environmental justice at the EPA until Wednesday, when he resigned after 24 years with the agency.

Last week, a source revealed to CNN a list of programs potentially affected by a Trump administration proposal that could slash the agency’s budget by 24% and reduce its staffing by 20%. Some of the EPA’s most longstanding and best-known programs are facing potential elimination, including initiatives aimed at improving water and air quality as well as a number of regulations tasked with reducing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Along with the Environmental Justice program, programs up for elimination include multi-purpose grants to states and tribes, Energy Star grants, Science to Achieve Results (STAR) graduate fellowships, the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act and initiatives aimed at environmental protections along the US-Mexico border.

Ali said the main reason for his departure is the new administration’s approach to environmental protections, particularly involving minority communities.

“How can you have a positive role in communities if you are proposing rolling back regulations and cutting resources? These grants are important to these communities when you talk about rolling it back, it tells me these communities are not a priority and I can not be a part of that,” he said.

CNN has reached out to the EPA for comment.

Ali said a prime example of the need for environmental justice programs is the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, where cost-cutting measures led to tainted drinking water containing lead and other toxins that harmed a primarily low-income African-American community.

Ali told EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in his letter that vulnerable communities are disproportionately impacted by harmful environmental policies.

“Communities of color, low-income communities and indigenous populations are still struggling to receive equal protections before the law,” he wrote. “These communities, both rural and urban, often live in areas with toxic levels of air pollution, crumbling or non-existent water and sewer infrastructure, lead in their drinking water, brownfields from vacant former industrial and commercial sites, superfund and other hazardous waste sites, as well as other sources of exposures to pollutants.”

Ali helped establish the environmental justice office at EPA during George H.W. Bush’s presidency and has been working on related issues since then.

“So, when I hear we are considering making cuts to grant programs like the EJ small grants or Collaborative Problem Solving programs, which have assisted over 1,400 communities, I wonder if our new leadership has had the opportunity to converse with those who need our help the most,” he wrote. “I strongly encourage you and your team to continue promoting agency efforts to validate these communities’ concerns, and value their lives.”

Ali requested that Pruitt continue the position he’s vacating and support the work coming from the Office of Environmental Justice.

“We often forget that the choices we make on regulations affecting clean air, clean water and enforcement are interconnected with the lives of our vulnerable communities and tribal populations,” he wrote. “Communities have shared with me over the past two decades how important the enforcement work at the Agency is in protecting their often forgotten and overlooked communities.”