Trump’s move to weaken key environmental law could sideline communities of color

Source: BY Juliet Eilperic with Mariana Alfaro, Washington Post • Posted: Monday, July 13, 2020

At a moment when many communities of color are calling for greater input in public policy, President Trump is seeking to overhaul one of the nation’s most powerful environmental laws in a way that could minimize their voices.

On Wednesday, the president is slated to finalize changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires the federal government to analyze how a major decision affects the environment and take public comment. Trump will travel to Atlanta to make the case that scaling back the 50 year-old statute will speed the construction of highways, pipelines and other infrastructure projects across the country. His cheerleading for a robust economic rebound comes in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic that continues to set new infection records.

NEPA has emerged as a major legal counterweight to the Trump administration’s policy agenda.

And it’s one of the most effective ways Americans of color have pushed back against plans that could harm their health and environment. Business groups and some unions, however, argue that it is a burdensome and complex law that has exponentially increased the cost and time it takes to modernize America’s infrastructure.

Asked about the new rule, White House spokesman Judd Deere said in an email, “The President will continue to take action to facilitate the great American comeback and to improve the quality of life [for] all Americans.”

In the past few months alone, challenges involving the law have halted at least three multibillion-dollar projects championed by the administration and its allies in the energy industry: the Keystone XL pipeline, the Dakota Access pipeline and the Atlantic Coast pipeline. In late June, a federal judge ordered the U.S. Forest Service to redo its environmental impact assessment for a plan to log old-growth trees across 1.8 million acres of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, after finding the initial proposal violated the law’s basic requirements.

Back in January, the White House proposed major changes to NEPA to limit which projects it applied to, how the government would calculate a proposal’s environmental impacts and how long the public would have to weigh in on any given decision.

These changes include eliminating the requirement to examine a project’s cumulative impact, including taking into account other projects in the area; requiring the most complex analyses be completed within two years; and prohibiting agencies from calculating the climate impact of burning fossil fuels extracted from federal lands or waters once they reach their final destination.

“It’s just massive,” said Raul Garcia, legislative director for healthy communities in the policy and legislative department of Earthjustice, an environmental law group, referring to the administration’s NEPA overhaul.

He argued the administration is rewriting the law “with the overall goal of excluding the public, undermining the study of the impacts that our federal infrastructure has on our communities and cutting a blank check for companies to do whatever they want when it comes to affecting public health and safety.”

A federal judge on July 6 ordered the Dakota Access pipeline to shut down until more environmental review is done. (Tom Stromme/Bismarck Tribune/AP)
A coalition of groups — energy, farming, logging, ranching and chemical manufacturers — seeks to scale back NEPA.

Marty Durbin, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute, said in a phone interview Saturday the administration’s overhaul will “provide predictability and transparency” so developers can learn whether a project is viable. The lengthy analysis required under the law, coupled with the legal challenges that almost inevitably follow, can delay proposals for several years.

“The question is, can we have a process in place here that, in a reasonable time frame, can get us to a yes or a no,” he said. “We totally support environmental reviews of whatever’s necessary, and community input.”

For decades, developers have deliberately built polluting operations — including trash incinerators, coal stacks and chemical plants — near low-income communities and communities of color. A study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found African Americans bear a “pollution burden” that is 56 percent higher than other Americans, on average, relative to what they spend on goods and services. Hispanics have a pollution burden that is 63 percent higher, the researchers found.

Durbin argued that going forward, industries can rectify these wrongs by building mass transit and renewable energy projects under a streamlined law.

“We should look at this as an opportunity to provide more economic growth to those areas and have more environmentally sustainable projects in those communities,” he said. “We clearly have to recognize things we didn’t do right in past, so how do we build them going forward?”

But the Coalition for Healthy Ports’ Kim Gaddy, a 56-year-old activist living in the South Ward of Newark, said in a phone interview that the long-standing environmental law is a critical tool in fending off development contributing to the city’s higher rates of cancer and lung disease.

Gaddy has three children with asthma, ages 31, 20 and 16. The area is already home to long-haul diesel trucks shipping goods from the New York-New Jersey Port, Newark Liberty International Airport, the largest incinerator in the Northeast, a natural-gas power plant and another gas plant being proposed by NJ Transit.

Residents in Newark’s East Ward, known as the Ironbound, convinced policymakers to reroute some heavy trucks off local streets by using NEPA. Gaddy said she fears the NEPA changes will weaken residents’ ability to push back on additional development.

“Our main issue is we already suffer from the cumulative impacts of pollution that has disproportionately impacted people of color. So one of the reasons we are fighting for NEPA is that NEPA at least allows us to have a voice,” she said, adding the White House shouldn’t be changing the law “in this day and age of police brutality, of covid-19, when more of us are impacted because we have compromised health systems.”

 “So now you’re silencing us totally,” Gaddy said. “You’re forcing us to accept more pollution.”