Minority areas already have high pollution. Trump’s coronavirus response makes it worse, critics say.

Source: By Dino Grandoni with Paulina Firozi, Washington Post • Posted: Thursday, June 11, 2020

President Trump’s efforts to prop up the economy during the coronavirus pandemic may end up doing more harm than good for poor and minority neighborhoods facing chronic pollution, administration critics say.

A pair of recent administration actions in response to the viral outbreak may deprive African Americans, Native Americans and other groups of a voice in major decisions that affect air and water quality near them and end up allowing pollution to go unchecked in their communities.

The administration’s moves come against the backdrop of tens of thousands of Americans marching in the streets to protest racial inequalityafter the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day.

Homes near an oil refinery in southwest Detroit. (Nick Hagen for The Washington Post)

“When we say, ‘I can’t breathe,’ we literally can’t breathe,” Mustafa Santiago Ali, who helped found the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice program, said during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing Tuesday, echoing some of Floyd’s final words as a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, kept his knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

To speed up economic activity, Trump wants to curtail a key way communities have a say about what gets built in their backyards.

Earlier this month, the president signed an executive order allowing major infrastructure projects to move forward without significant environmental review.

Under the order, federal agencies are now able to waive some requirements under the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that projects such as refineries and highways be scrutinized for their potential negative impact on the environment.

Those sorts of projects are often built in or through low-income communities, such as those in Detroit or Houston, with few resources to fend off unwanted development. Without environmental review, people who live in those communities may have no way of formally registering their discontent with federal authorities.

“NEPA has historically been a major tool for holding developers accountable,” said Robert Bullard, a scholar credited as the father of environmental justice — the idea that poor and minority communities bear the brunt of environmental hazards.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton mandated that all agencies take into account the potential disproportionate impacts on those neighborhoods when reviewing projects.

Bullard, who is a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, said since that change in the mid-1990s it has been much easier for under-resourced communities to stop unwelcome industrial facilities.

A year after Clinton’s executive order, for example, Bullard and other environmental justice advocates were able to use the environmental review process to stop the construction of a uranium enrichment plant in the majority-black town of Homer, La.

In 2016, an interagency group completed a report on how to further bolster community input in the environmental review process.

But Ali said in an interview Wednesday that “this administration ignored” those recommendations.

“Whether they want to say, there are pretty vulnerable communities in greater harm,” said Ali, who resigned from the EPA in 2017 after Trump’s White House proposed defunding his work. He is currently vice president of environmental justice at the National Wildlife Federation.

During the pandemic, Native American tribal groups in Alaska and New Mexico say it is harder for them to participate in online meetingsabout expanding oil and gas drilling near their lands since many of them lack high-quality Internet connections.

The oil industry and other developers, which have long clamored for changes to the 50-year-old NEPA law they say bogs down economic growth in unnecessary red tape, cheered Trump’s decision to loosen the requirements. Trump has argued companies need relief now more than ever after the U.S. economy went into recession in February.

“The need for continued progress in this streamlining effort is all the more acute now, due to the ongoing economic crisis,” Trump wrote in his June 4 executive order.

The EPA is also relaxing rules on pollution monitoring during the pandemic.

In March, just as the novel coronavirus gripped the United States and shut down much of the economy, the EPA issued a memorandum telling companies they would not be penalized for failing to monitor pollution from their facilities if the pandemic prevented them from doing so.

That memo has faced a renewed round of criticism this month since the start of the protests. Polluting industries often set up shop where it is cheapest — in low-income neighborhoods.

Earlier research from Harvard has linked the presence of sooty air to high death rates from covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, though the oil industry and some Republicans in Congress say the findings are too raw to be the basis for public policy.

The coronavirus is infecting and killing black Americans, who are already at a greater risk of exposure to soot, at a disproportionately high rate, according to a Washington Post analysis in April.

During Tuesday’s House hearing on air pollution and the pandemic, Ali said the issues of systemic racism in policing and environmental deregulation compound one another.

“Frontline communities are under attack from multiple emergencies happening at the same time,” Ali said during Tuesday’s House hearing.“Black communities are dealing with the systemic racism that has infected the policing in our communities that is literally choking us to death. The rolling back of environmental rules and regulations has us gasping for air due to the cumulative public health impacts from the burning of fossil fuels in our communities.”

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), chair of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on the environment and climate change, echoed those concerns, noting House Democrats included $50 million in grants for communities facing acute pollution in their latest coronavirus relief package, which passed the House last month but has not been taken up by the GOP-controlled Senate.

“We simply cannot allow this to continue, and unfortunately, the Trump administration is only making this public health and environmental crisis worse,” Pallone said. “When this administration announces that it will not enforce some environmental laws and regulations during the pandemic, that hurts these communities.”

The EPA has defended its coronavirus enforcement by noting the Obama administration made a similar move in response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

“Nobody is allowed to increase their emissions under our enforcement discretion,” EPA spokesperson James Hewitt said. “Despite multiple congressional briefings and correspondence, it’s clear Mr. Pallone has yet to read the text of EPA’s temporary enforcement discretion memo.”