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Alaska woman named to White House environmental justice council

An Alaska grandmother who has devoted much of her life to fighting military and industrial pollution will serve on the White House’s newly created advisory council to address environmental justice.

Vi Waghiyi will serve on the White House’s newly created advisory council to address environmental injustice. April 2021. (Photo provided by Vi Waghiyi)

Vi Waghiyi, raised in Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, will be one of 26 members on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, the White House announced this week.

“This position is not only a voice for our Sivuqaq Yupik people or the communities in the Norton Sound region,” Waghiyi, 62, said on Thursday. “It will be a voice for Alaska and Arctic and Indigenous people. We are generally never at the table when decisions are made for us miles and miles away.”

“I am very honored,” said Waghiyi, who lives in Anchorage.

The advisory council will address current and past environmental inequities and make recommendations to the chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, who advises President Joe Biden on environmental issues.

The advisory council will also make recommendations to the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council, a multiagency group created by Biden, consisting of cabinet members including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Waghiyi, the environmental health and justice director at Alaska Community Action on Toxics, said she began working for the group nearly two decades ago amid concerns about military contamination and negative health impacts from former defense sites on the island where she grew up.

Waghiyi said high levels of cancer in her family have made her deeply passionate about pollution in the Arctic.

“We don’t want more promises,” Waghiyi said. “We want real actions to achieve environmental justice, enforcement, and to hold industry and military polluters accountable.”

Waghiyi plans to raise climate justice as an issue, too, she said. Melting Arctic ice has hurt access to traditional subsistence foods like walrus, and can be a source for the release of persistent organic pollutants, such as pesticides, that are transported by wind and water and accumulate in human and animal tissue, she said.

The new advisory council had its first meeting on Tuesday. It meets quarterly, Waghiyi said.

Biden established the advisory council with an executive order designed to address climate change. Biden wants to ensure that “historically marginalized and polluted, overburdened communities have greater input on federal policies and decisions,” according to the White House statement about the advisory council.

Cecilia Martinez, senior director for environmental justice with the Council on Environmental Quality, called Waghiyi about a month ago to ask if she’d be interested in joining the advisory panel, Waghiyi said. The two have worked together in the past, Waghiyi said.

“I’ve known about this for a while and had to keep it quiet,” Waghiyi said.

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