EPA Regional Administrator Adam Ortiz talks environmental justice and climate change
The former Maryland Mayor discussed the EPA’s goals for 2023, Earth Day, and provided climate and environmental information for Philly’s Latino communities.
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Life provisions such as health care — disproportionately hurt the working class and communities of color.
And climate and environmental factors are no different.
With climate change and environmental decline posing irreversible consequences to the planet, Earth Day — Saturday, April 22 — is a universal way to acknowledge the issues, inform others about it, and take steps to address it.
It’s something that the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Administrator Adam Ortiz is pushing. He oversees federal environmental and public health protections in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, the District of Columbia, and seven federally-recognized tribes.
In partnership with state partners and local stakeholders, Ortiz’s work is focused on infrastructure, enforcement, climate change, environmental justice, and restoring the Chesapeake Bay.
“It's a full plate but it's been invigorating to have the support of the White House and other leaders to carry out this work,” said Ortiz. “The community is very supportive, and they've been asking for, and expecting help from the federal government on the everyday challenges that they have, with their political environment, but also the public health of themselves and their families.”
“There's big environmental challenges today, and we're expecting even bigger ones in the future with climate change. So expect us to be on the ground ready to help them,” he added.
Originally from New York’s Hudson River Valley, the outdoors was a big part of daily life for Ortiz, and he grew with a fondness for hiking and fishing.
“Nature and the environment have always been near and dear to my heart,” Ortiz said.
A graduate of Goucher College in Baltimore in 1996 with a degree in human rights, public policy and criminal justice reform, he went on to spend his early professional years in Washington working for several different nonprofit groups, including Amnesty International.
He spent 2002 from 2005 with the American Bar Association’s Juvenile Justice Center in Washington as a Soros criminal justice fellow, before joining the Office of Lieutenant Governor in Maryland, as Deputy Chief of Staff from 2009 to 2011 and Special Assistant to Secretary / Compliance & Audit Manager.
In 2005, Ortiz became the Mayor of Edmonston, Maryland, serving three terms and is remembered for ending four years of chronic flooding by improving water infrastructure. Ortiz also led the town’s "Complete Green Street,” that captures and filters stormwater runoff, enables bike and pedestrian access, and has improved the quality of life in the town that suffered floods for over four years
“Environmental justice and climate change, those two things became front and center,” he said.
“The disproportionality among people of color facing environmental crises is clear. It's not just people of color, but it tends to be working people as well. So too often communities of color are our frontline communities, that are environmental stressors,” Ortiz added.
He cited current demographics that show that there are more Latinos in his old town now compared to the mid-2000s when it was about 30%, white, Black and Hispanic.
“It was a very mixed working class community. We struggled with these severe storm events that nowadays are pretty common. Managing that gave me for better or worse a lot of experience in dealing with environmental crises,” Ortiz said. “I can see how the environment and socio-economic history intersect.”
Joining the Biden Administration
One of his last stops before joining the EPA was as Director of the Montgomery County, Maryland Department of Environmental Protection, where programs under his leadership increased recycling, curbside compost collection, building energy efficiency standards, and watershed restoration projects with equity as the emphasis.
He was then Director of the Department of Environment for Prince George’s County, Maryland, leading the county to the highest recycling rate in the state and was behind a $100M public-private green infrastructure construction program that focused on small and minority business development.
Ortiz — of Puerto Rican descent — was then appointed by President Joe Biden as the new EPA Regional Administrator for Region 3 in November 2021.
“He's a very genuine man who cares a lot about public service. So, that I got his thumbs up is an honor of a lifetime,” Ortiz said.
Environmental and Climate challenges in PA
Since being appointed, Ortiz has overseen the environmental and climate challenges that face Pennsylvania and particularly Philadelphia, where massive manufacturing once existed.
“The impacts of toxins on land, in the air, and how climate change can increase the health risks of people under heat stress. There's a close tie to air quality and heat, especially in places that have less tree canopy which is too often the case in vulnerable communities,” he said.
Pennsylvania had just opted into the Climate Pollution Reduction Grants program, part of the federal Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), that provides grants to state and local government bodies to create climate action plans and makes them eligible for grants from the $4.6 billion pool established by the IRA and administered by the EPA.
The state will receive up to a $3 million planning grant through the program while the regional planning commissions will receive up to $1 million planning grants.
“The way the grants are designed is that we're providing resources for communities to come up with their own solutions. That ties very much with my experience as Mayor. We were the ones facing the distress and we came up with our own solutions to make sure that the town was resilient,” he said.
“It was really that local wisdom that was essential,” he added.
The agency is also able to reach more people by offering multilingual resources for communities that are oftentimes forgotten in regards to accessible news. They provide translation services for meetings as needed and prepare material, including real time translation, for any group that needs it.
The EPA resources page in Spanish can be found here: https://espanol.epa.gov/
“In the Biden, Harris administration, that's more of a priority than ever before,” he said. “Regardless of your national origin or your zip code, you have every right to fully participate in the civic life of our country, and in protecting your own public health.”
Earth Day 2023 is in its 53rd year and now includes a large number of events coordinated globally by EARTHDAY.ORG with participation of over one billion people. The official theme for 2023 is ‘Invest In Our Planet.’
“We're gonna continue to focus on getting the historic investments and infrastructure to the places that need them the most. And also to work together to address some of the most stubborn environmental issues in our region,” he said.
Earth Day also helps shed more light on the issue and it's a conversation that Ortiz says is important to keep having.
“Anytime we can talk more about our environmental responsibilities, it's a good thing. All of us have a responsibility to make sure that we're good stewards for the environment, to the next generation,” Ortiz said.
“It's a chance to learn but also a chance to participate. We ask everybody to do something good for the environment, not just on Earth Day, but every day,” he added.
The EPA’s goals for the rest of 2023 are dedicated towards getting out into the community and further engaging the most climate and environmentally endangered communities.
“For us to continue to engage as many frontlines in minority communities as possible,” said Ortiz. “Our goal is to try to encourage and cheer on everybody, to be an environmental steward in their own way, among their own families and their own communities.”