Matt RotaSenior Policy Director at Healthy Gulf

Matt Rota

New Orleans, Louisiana

Matt is the Senior Policy Director for Healthy Gulf. Matt oversees Science and Policy initiatives for Healthy Gulf. He and his team advocate for science-based policies and environmental enforcement that protect Gulf communities. During his tenure at Healthy Gulf he has advocated for healthy waters throughout the Gulf of Mexico Region and the Mississippi River. Matt has given numerous presentations on water pollution issues including the Gulf Dead Zone, wetland protection, sewage pollution, and the BP Oil Drilling Disaster, at professional and technical conferences throughout the country. He earned his B.S. in Ecology, Evolutionary, and Organismal Biology from Tulane University and his Masters of Earth and Environmental Resources Management from the University of South Carolina.

This interview was conducted by Carly Schmidt on September 19, 2022. Learn more about Matt’s work at

You are on the committee that developed the 3rd Edition of the Clean Water Act Owner’s Manual. What sections of the manual have you been primarily focused on and what has that process been like?

We are working to make the current edition of the Manual more community centered, focused more on the climate justice angle of things. This is the best part of the new edition, in my opinion. Personally, I’ve used the Manual for years. One of the first things I ever did with Healthy Gulf 17 years ago was a train the trainers workshop that Gayle Killam ran in Alabama. Now I give the Manual to all my legal interns. For this edition of the Manual, I worked on one of the community case studies about our victory going up against a coal export terminal along the Lower Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish, LA. We filed a citizen suit under the Clean Water Act to look into permit violations, which resulted in the installation of pollution prevention procedures and policies. Now there is one less piece of pollution in this community that has a long history of pollution and inadequate support.

How do you hope this new edition goes even further than the first and second editions?

In this water policy space, the Manual is the best tool to learn about the Clean Water Act. Part of my job is reviewing water discharge permits, wetland permits, wetland standards, and anti-degradation policies. All of these things are laid out so well in the Manual. I wouldn’t have been able to do my job as effectively without the Manual, but it has been many years since the first edition was released. Climate change and environmental justice weren’t centered in the Manual back then, but the priorities of the nation have changed. Centering those two things is really important. The 2nd Edition really lays out the framework for how to understand the technical pieces of the Clean Water Act, but we need to start addressing the systemic racism within our laws and policies and how they are applied by the feds and states. And the Manual isn’t a treatise that will fix environmental racism, but it is starting to center the issue and highlight the stories of these communities who have been overburdened for years despite the existence of the Clean Water Act. And it’s centering climate change, too. The environment is changing, so the Manual is starting a dialogue about the future of the Clean Water Act.

You’re saying that the Act doesn’t go far enough to protect already overburdened communities. How are these shortcomings addressed in the Manual?

There are areas where the Act, as it’s been used, has not been able to address more systemic issues. For example, nitrogen phosphorus pollution (or fertilizer pollution) that causes the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. We’ve been working on this issue for quite a while and one of the challenges is that it is a nonpoint source pollution issue. We’ve sued over it, we’ve worked on NPDES permits where we can, and we’ve seen improvements on a local scale but the Dead Zone is not getting smaller. The Act is really not designed to address large scale nonpoint source pollution. In fact, agricultural pollution is largely exempt from the Clean Water Act. We need to start getting creative in figuring out how to address some of these pollution sources that are not coming out of plants or chemical facilities.

Tell me about your recent victory that you describe in the Manual.

It all started around the BP oil disaster in 2010. Every time we flew over the Mississippi River we would see a plume of black smoke coming off the coal and petroleum coke. We worked with organizations Louisiana Environmental Action Network, the Sierra Club, as well as local communities in Plaquemines Parish, LA, and others that were already overburdened by pollution. We also teamed up with folks at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic to dig into the Clean Water Act Owner’s Manual to look at their permits and water quality standards of the Mississippi River. We discovered that no permit existed that allowed them to discharge into the Mississippi River. We filed a citizen suit under the Clean Water Act against United Bulk Terminals. We had a very strong standing and a set of historic photos of the pollution in that area. We ended up settling with them and worked toward a solution where they had to clean up the area on every shift. They were all very simple solutions and that should have been implemented prior to this suit. But, climate wise, that coal is still being exported. That’s the thing about the Clean Water Act, it is one tool that is moving us toward a cleaner Mississippi River.

What are you focused on now at Healthy Gulf?

Something that has been impacting the Gulf quite a bit is the increased push to export liquified natural gas. There are lots of proposals for new export terminals, especially in Lake Charles and Plaquemines Parish. Then there are all the associated pipelines. We’re talking about hundreds of acres of wetlands torn up and impacts to traditional burial and sacred sites. These are going through communities of color along the Mississippi River in the area known as Cancer Alley, and on into Texas. The war in Ukraine is making this issue all the more urgent because these projects are being fast tracked.

Related to this is increased pressure for carbon capture and storage, which has been controversial. The idea is that you can take the carbon out of a power plant and bury it underground with a deep well injection. This is not a proven technology at this point. Again, pipelines would take this carbon through communities that don’t need any more pollution. And these pipelines have already ruptured. All these projects are trying to be fast tracked by the administration and it is not a viable solution.

How have you seen energy around these issues shift over the last few years?

I am seeing recent college and law school graduates come into this work with more passion for climate and social justice. One thing about the water movement is that it’s very white and siloed. I’ve learned that whenever there is a big project like the Dead Zone or proposed pipelines running through communities, you need to attack it with all the tools you have. That includes the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, direct actions, and zoning permits. We are looking at water issues more holistically now, through a climate justice and a just energy transition lens. I’m seeing that from the newer advocates too. They’re breaking down those silos and recognizing that climate justice is environmental justice is social justice.