Why Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency
01:14 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Stephanie Griffith, a Washington-based journalist, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. Read more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

A lot of harm has been done in the name of development. People residing in lower-income neighborhoods across the United States, and black and brown communities in particular, have long been in the crosshairs when it comes to being displaced by construction of roads, highways and other huge projects.

Stephanie Griffith

The problem has never entirely gone away, but it became a little less acute 50 years ago this month, when the National Environmental Policy Act was enacted.

Last week, the Trump administration proposed regulatory rollbacks to the act, changing how the federal government plans to address the environmental impacts of its actions – including highway, bridge and pipeline construction. These proposals would move us backwards in the fight for environmental justice and on the climate crisis.

Signed by President Richard Nixon in January 1970, NEPA has been a game changer for many communities seeking a voice. Its passage marked a major breakthrough for environment fairness and community justice.

Now, President Donald Trump is looking to roll back those protections. The administration says it is looking to “modernize” the law, but environmentalists and communities fear that the planned changes will also include new limits on public input.

Before NEPA, federal infrastructure dollars were used to raze vulnerable communities, particularly communities of color, which were given no say in the matter.

Since implementation of the law, the government has had to accept and respond to any and all public comment on proposed federal construction plans.

Sometimes, low-income people and communities of color fought the system, and occasionally, they won.

Communities bulldozed by construction undertaken in the name of progress before the act would have relished the chance to have a say in their fate, even if their outcry wouldn’t have changed the outcome.

That’s certainly true for my own relatives: The quiet residential community in South Florida where my grandparents owned a single-story wood frame house was shattered during the 1960s by construction of Interstate 95.

Work crews leveled about half their neighborhood in the Pompano Beach area for construction on the massive highway, the major north-south thoroughfare running from Maine to Florida.

It came as a surprise to no one that the multilane interstate, with its noise and exhaust, was built through the poorer and blacker parts of Pompano Beach. The construction lopped off part of my grandparents’ property, although their home was spared. My grandfather had supplemented the family income for decades to pay for the property, scratching out a living raising sugar cane, beans, avocado, poultry. They were fairly compensated for the land, according to relatives. But it’s not as if they had any choice in the matter.

And dozens of other homes and businesses – about half the properties in the neighborhood – were destroyed. Some Pompano businesses were spared the wrecking ball but eventually were forced to close after losing a substantial portion of their customer base.

Kenneth Thurston is now the mayor of the city of Lauderhill, Florida, just a few miles from Pompano. He’s also my uncle, my mother’s brother, raised by my grandparents in the same modest wood frame house where they raised all 13 of their children. He saw many homes just like theirs demolished. I asked him to recount for me how a huge swath of “black Pompano” – the predominantly African American part of town – came to be razed.

“It was a little bit more than 50 years ago. I remember coming home from college my first year, which was 1968, and seeing houses being torn down to make way for the new expressway,” he recalled.

“The properties were taken by eminent domain in order to build the highway.”

It’s hard to say if NEPA had been in place in the late 1960s whether it might have made a difference.

Although the law was signed in 1970, the regulations dictating how agencies should conduct environmental review were not fully finalized until 1978 – meaning that many projects around that time received varying levels of agency attention. And because this project was started prior to the law’s passage, it did not receive NEPA’s full protections.

Still, having the law was critical, especially in the Jim Crow South, where during the era of redlining, black families were forced to build their homes in the least desirable parts of town.

These undesirable locations, coupled with the general disenfranchisement of black people, made it a given that, commonly, the mere fact that a community was predominantly black would have been enough to depress home values in the eyes of the government.

And if something is deemed to be without valuable, you have no problem knocking it down.

In an oft-cited case, builders in 1956 began constructing Interstate 94 with federal dollars through the predominantly black community of Rondo in St. Paul, Minnesota. The construction razed 650 homes and nearly 100 African American-owned businesses, over strong objections from the community.

Rondo was a vibrant, mostly black community that sprang up during the Great Migration of African Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South. It became an oasis of working and middle class families and one of the most dynamic black communities west of the Mississippi. That changed when officials routed the interstate right through the neighborhood.

“The freeway found us and wiped us out,” Marvin Anderson, a lifelong resident of the community, told me.

What made the destruction of Rondo so appalling is that there was another viable construction route for I-94, along an abandoned railroad track to the north of the community.

Students at Macalester College, a private liberal arts college in St. Paul, closely examined what happened in Rondo. They determined, through a community impact study, that if the I-94 construction had been viewed through an environmental justice lens, then there might very well have been a very different outcome: either providing fair compensation for the properties destroyed or even taking a different path altogether.

“Rondo is a cautionary tale. That’s going to happen again and again and again if those … regulations are watered down or eliminated from consideration,” Anderson said.

In Trump’s vision, the laws remain on the books but would be rendered far less effective. The position that the administration is using is that it plans to streamline the law through regulatory changes, since approval from Congress is needed before any fundamental changes to the statute itself can be made.

Under last week’s proposed changes, authorities could now sidestep communities, public health, worker safety and environmental protections, damaging Americans’ access to clean air and water. Eliminating the requirement that agencies consider the “cumulative impacts” of a project has the potential to be the most significant action the Trump administration takes to limit the government’s response to climate change.

With these changes, projects won’t have to consider how their pollution adds to existing stressors that already cause toxic pollution, which is predominantly in communities of color.

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    It could also reduce the types of projects that get reviewed, allowing for many more projects to proceed without information from the public or analysis of how the project will impact cultural sites, air or water.

    Trump’s allies in big business, meanwhile, are elated at the prospect of defanging NEPA, which has long been opposed by developers and interests in the fossil fuel industry.

    In November, 30 industry groups – including the Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute – sent a letter to the Trump administration asking it to “expeditiously proceed” with changes to the law.

    The Trump administration has done so at the cost of vulnerable poor people and communities of color, but in a broader sense, he’s done it at the cost of all of us.