Editor’s Note: Denise D. Morrison is the acting president of AFGE Council #238, a union representing more than 8,000 EPA workers nationwide. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency has abandoned environmental justice, which requires the fair treatment of all people, regardless of race or color, in the development and enforcement of environmental laws and regulation.
Its latest effort – the so-called Affordable Clean Energy Rule, announced last Tuesday – only exacerbates the issue by continuing to dismantle regulations designed to protect communities of color. It neglects the enforcement of the Clean Air Act (CAA), which standardizes air pollution to safe levels, and the Clean Water Act (CWA), which regulates the discharge of pollutants in American waters.
And it does this despite the EPA’s own research showing how communities of color bear the brunt of dirty air and contaminated water. Urban neighborhoods, impoverished rural towns and Native American communities, in fact, face the worst toxic pollution in the nation.
The new rule also rolls back the Clean Power Plan, proposed in 2014 by then-President Barack Obama as a complement to the CAA and CWA, to cut millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions and hundreds of thousands of tons of particulate matter pollution, also known as soot and smog. That soot and smog more often impact minority and low-income communities, which likely reside in high-pollution areas.
And the EPA even admits that the Trump administration’s rollback of the Clean Power Plan rule will result in thousands more premature deaths, heart attacks, asthma attacks and missed work days that impact minority communities.
What makes these changes that much more egregious is that they go against the history of the agency, which was founded on the principles of environmental justice. After Cleveland’s then-Mayor Carl Stokes exposed extreme pollution from steel mills and factories as the cause for the Cuyahoga River fire, he and his brother, then-Congressman Louis Stokes, helped to bring about the creation of the EA and passage of the CWA.
Since then, the agency has always strived to consider how regulations affect communities of color – and how they must be designed and implemented to ensure the safety of those communities. In 2010, the former EPA Administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, even established environmental justice as an agencywide priority, engaging those communities in decision-making and devoting needed resources.
In 2016, the EPA issued an ambitious four-year plan called the Environmental Justice 2020 Action Agenda. The next phase of strategic planning on environmental justice at EPA, EJ 2020 would help advance environmental justice through its programs, policies and activities, and would support the cross-agency strategy on making a visible difference.
But after decades of progress, the Trump administration’s policies are creating new public health risks and imperiling lives in many minority communities.
Trump’s first 2017 budget proposal eliminated the EPA’s environmental justice program – which serviced minority communities facing severe air and water pollution. Mustafa Ali, a towering figure in the field who worked at EPA for 24 years, resigned as the head of that office in March 2017.
Then, researchers in the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment released findings in February 2018 that people of color are much more likely to live near polluted water and breathe dirty air. The study focused on automobile fumes, smog, soot, ash and construction dust that cause serious illnesses and outcomes like asthma, low birth weight, heart attacks and high blood pressure.
It found African-Americans are exposed to 1.5 times more pollutants than Caucasians and Latinos were about 1.2 times more likely to breathe toxins than non-Hispanic whites. And, according to the CDC, one in six black children has asthma, a rate that is almost double that of white children. Meanwhile, almost one in five Puerto Ricans across the US has asthma, the highest of any racial or ethnic group.
Despite these findings, Scott Pruitt, who formerly led the agency under Trump, did little to address them. In fact, Pruitt stalled numerous environmental regulations, took little action on improving ozone standards and developed plans to scrap Obama-era rules on disposal of coal ash, the toxic byproduct from coal-fired power plants that has caused major water contamination problems in economically depressed areas. The EPA justified this move by touting cost savings for the utility sector of between $31 and $100 million annually.
According to “Fumes Across the Fence-Line,” a recent report published by the Clean Air Task Force and the NAACP, more than 1 million African-Americans live within a half-mile of oil and gas wells and processing and storage facilities. And more than 6 million live in counties with oil refineries that expose them to increased risk of cancer. Dirty air produced by industry is responsible for more than 138,000 asthma attacks and more than 100,000 missed school days each year.
Andrew Wheeler, the new acting administrator of the EPA, could heed this report and champion these struggles – holding polluters accountable for poisoning communities of color. In other words, the EPA could finish what it started in 2016.
Now is the time to act. One thousand more deaths is too high a price to pay. We call on Wheeler to dust off EJ 2020 and recommit the agency to clean energy abundance, fulfilling the EPA’s mission to protect public health and environment for all Americans.