‘In it for the long haul’
Peggy Shepard, an environmental activist whose work has seen her get arrested at protests, now finds herself giving guidance to the White House.
Shepard, whose work focuses on environmental injustices against disadvantaged communities, is the cofounder of a New York City-based nonprofit that seeks to remedy such inequalities locally.
She’s also the co-chair of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council — a group of outside advocates that advises the Biden administration on environment policies geared toward addressing racism and inequity.
Multiple studies have shown that people of color are typically exposed to more pollution than their white counterparts, even at the same income levels.
President Biden has moved to take on the issue, launching an initiative called Justice40 that seeks to steer at least 40 percent of all federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities.
He also created the advisory group in an executive order. Shepard said that allowing the organization to advise the White House directly gives it a broad scope over federal government activity.
“The concept is that we’re advising the White House directly, and the White House staff versus only advising the EPA and it not going any further,” Shepard told The Hill in a recent interview, noting that she previously advised the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Advising the White House, there’s an interagency working group so we are also more indirectly collaborating with all of the federal agencies as well,” she added.
Shepard first got involved with environmental activism in the 1980s amid a fight against a sewage treatment facility near her community in New York. She said the plant caused “emissions and odors that were making people sick” in the West Harlem area.
The fight was a long one, Shepard said, dragging on for eight years.
She said that she was part of a group of activists who got arrested protesting against the plant, known as the “Sewage Seven.”
And Shepard said her work on the issue opened her eyes up to other environmental problems.
“When you take on one issue like that, your eyes are open and you begin to see the other issues,” she said, adding that she also did activism about the presence of polluting bus depots in majority Black areas.
“When we started there were seven depots in Manhattan … six were uptown,” she said. “Every bus was diesel, and they were idling everywhere — outside of schools, people’s homes.”
Meaningful community activism, she said, can take a long time.
“It took us 18 years to get the [Metro Transit Authority] to move from diesel to hybrid,” she said. “You’ve got to understand that you’re in it for the long haul.”
As for her efforts on the federal level, Shepard said it’s too soon to say whether the Biden administration is doing a thorough job of following the advisory council’s advice.
“We don’t exactly know because we don’t know yet what recommendations are being implemented. We are collaborating with them,” she said. “It’s been slow; bureaucracy is slow.”
One of the group’s biggest policy disagreements so far with the administration is its support for nuclear energy and carbon capture technology, in which the planet-warming emissions from burning fossil fuels are prevented from going into the air and warming the planet.
While the administration supports nuclear and carbon capture, Shepard’s group listed both as “examples of the types of projects that will not benefit a community.”
“They shouldn’t be supported by the government,” she said, and the fact that the administration does “makes us doubt their understanding of the issues.”
Nuclear energy is a source that doesn’t contribute to climate change, making it popular among some climate advocates, but there have been questions about where radioactive nuclear waste should be stored. And high-profile meltdowns at sites including Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 have made nuclear energy reliably controversial.
Meanwhile, carbon capture is an emerging technology that would enable fossil fuel plants to capture their emissions to prevent them from going into the atmosphere. Proponents have touted this as an important climate solution, but opponents have said it could extend the lifetimes of these facilities and have also pointed to some past mechanical problems.
But despite some areas of disagreement, Shepard said she feels positively about the direction the administration and the country will move in.
“I feel optimistic that the Justice40 Initiative will benefit communities, but that will only happen if advocates hold not only the federal government accountable, but also localities and states,” she said.
Shepard’s environmental activism comes after previously working in journalism. She said that this past work helped her learn how to “ask the right questions” as well as with “not being afraid to ask questions and hold people accountable.”
In addition to her White House advising, Shepard serves as the co-founder and executive director of the New York-based group WE ACT for Environmental Justice.
In general, she believes the world is doing a better job tuning in to issues of environmental racism and injustice.
“Ten years ago, you weren’t calling to do an interview, so I think that says something,” she said. “Nobody was interviewing [environmental justice] people 10 years ago … things have changed.”