Mary Nichols, fading as EPA contender, talks civil rights

Posted: Wednesday, December 16, 2020

At 18 years old, Mary Nichols attended the 1963 March on Washington, the largest gathering for civil rights of its time.

Then as a rising sophomore at Cornell University, Nichols spent a summer in Fayette County, Ga., a historically Black area, to help people register to vote.

These early experiences were the focus of an unusual event yesterday where Nichols, who is white, sought to cast herself as an ally of the struggle for racial justice.

The event came after more than 70 groups urged President-elect Joe Biden not to nominate Nichols to lead EPA, saying she promoted policies that concentrated pollution in communities of color as chair of the California Air Resources Board (Greenwire, Dec. 3).

The groups’ letter appeared to spark concern on the Biden transition team, which is now considering other candidates for EPA administrator, including Basil Seggos of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Michael Regan of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (Greenwire, Dec. 14).

Veloz, a nonprofit organization that advocates for electric vehicle adoption, billed the virtual discussion yesterday as a retrospective on Nichols’ career before her term as CARB chair ends later this month.

The moderators began by showing a photo of a young Nichols at the March on Washington, although her face was difficult to make out in the crowd.

“I love the picture just because of what it reminds me of,” Nichols said. “There were three buses that were chartered from Cornell and the town of Ithaca, [N.Y.,] which didn’t have a lot of Black residents. But it had some, and many of them came with us, and it was a wonderful day.”

The moderators then described how Nichols spent a summer in Fayette County, where she worked with a Cornell professor to enfranchise Black voters, many of whom were sharecroppers.

“While we’re a long way from rooting out racism in our society, as many have become all too aware of this summer, I think … at the time, there were still basic issues about the equal protection under the law,” Nichols said. “And to have been a part of that was one of the great events of my life.”

Nichols added that she returned to Fayette County last year to visit a memorial that represented counties where Black people had been lynched.

Neither the moderators nor Nichols mentioned the groups’ recent letter to the Biden transition team; it alleged that the California regulator has a “bleak track record in addressing environmental racism.”

But Anthony Rogers-Wright, a policy coordinator for the Climate Justice Alliance who signed the letter, said the event struck him as a “last-ditch” attempt to counter the groups’ criticism and revive Nichols’ candidacy for the EPA job.

“We’re not judging Mary Nichols by what she did in the ’60s. We’re judging her by what she has done in her capacity as director of CARB,” Rogers-Wright said in a phone interview yesterday. “And unfortunately, during that tenure, she has backed and championed policies and approaches to emissions reductions that have been harmful to the environmental justice communities who bear the brunt of those emissions.”

He added: “To make this last-ditch effort is rather tawdry, quite frankly, and it’s pretty insulting that a couple of photos are going to mollify concerns from our communities, who are being choked out by toxic emissions.”

Gladys Limón, executive director of the California Environmental Justice Alliance, which helped spearhead the letter, was not available to comment yesterday.

Despite the groups’ concerns, several high-profile people have supported Nichols for the EPA job, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former movie star and past Republican governor of California (Greenwire, Dec. 4).

Schwarzenegger made a surprise appearance at the event to advocate for her return to EPA, where she served as assistant administrator for air and radiation under President Clinton.

“I think the only reason that is excusable for you to leave [CARB] is if you go to some higher position, which is to run the EPA in Washington. So I’ve been pushing for that idea with everyone I know, to make it clear that you’re the best,” he said.

Schwarzenegger noted that Nichols has experience with getting automakers to agree to tougher tailpipe emissions standards. That could be valuable to the incoming Biden administration as it crafts new clean car standards.

“I always thought the world of you,” the former California governor told Nichols. “And the great thing always is that I’m a Republican. But I never felt like I was dealing with a Democrat. I always thought that you and I were interested in one thing, which was to improve things.”

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