From fast-tracking the Dakota Access pipeline to failing to ban a potentially brain-damaging pesticide, the Trump administration’s environmental policies have already negatively impacted the country’s most vulnerable communities, according to a newly-released report from the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative.
During EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s confirmation process, he told senators that he was “familiar with the concept of environmental justice” and that “all Americans be treated equally under the law, including the environmental laws.” Despite those assurances, however, the report, titled “Pursuing A Toxic Agenda,” tracks a slew of policy and budget choices made by the Trump administration in its first seven months and concludes that “the Trump administration poses the most serious threat the EPA has faced in the agency’s 47-year existence.”
Mustafa Santiago Ali, former head of the environmental justice program at the Environmental Protection Agency and current senior vice president of climate, environmental justice and community revitalization for the Hip Hop Caucus, agrees with the report’s conclusions.
“This is one of the most challenging times for the agency,” Ali told ThinkProgress. “There seems to be a direct assault on communities of color, low income communities, and indigenous communities based on the policies that [the Trump administration] have proposed and tried to move forward on.”
Ali, who left the EPA in March after seeing the agency begin to pursue “values and priorities” different than his own, said that he has yet to see the administration propose a policy that would directly benefit vulnerable communities. Instead, Ali noted Pruitt’s stated goal of wanting to “dismantle” the EPA in its traditional form and turn it into an agency that works more for industry stakeholders than the American public.
“There’s this huge disconnect between what is needed, and what is being asked for from anyone except the fossil fuel industry,” Ali said.
Still, as the report notes, there are opportunities for the environmental justice movement to make progress under the Trump administration — just so long as they don’t involve the federal government. At least for the duration of the Trump administration, the report suggests that the EPA and the federal government will not be the appropriate avenues for pursuing progress in environmental justice. Instead, the report suggests that civil society as well as local governments need to take a more active role in ensuring that the tenets of environmental justice are incorporated into policy planning.
“The federal government does not get a pass. They have a distinct responsibility for addressing these issues inside of our most vulnerable communities,” Ali said. But, he added, groups like faith-based organizations, academic institutions, and philanthropic foundations also have an important role to play in furthering environmental justice during the Trump administration.
“All of these folks have got to come together and work in authentic, collaborative partnerships,” Ali said. “That is the way we will move our most vulnerable communities to surviving to thriving.
Even with help from civil society and local government, however, several Trump-era environmental policies are already placing vulnerable communities in danger. Specifically, the report cites rollbacks in environmental justice policies within the EPA which are already placing farmworkers and communities living near industrial facilities at risk. The report notes EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s decision not to ban chlorpyrifos — a widely-used pesticide that EPA scientists had linked to brain damage in children — as a policy that will have an outsized impact on the health of farmworkers and farming communities. Just over a month after declining to ban chlorpyrifos, the chemical was implicated in the poisoning of at least twelve farmworkers in California, all of whom reported symptoms of vomiting and nausea after exposure.
The report also highlights Trump’s executive order to fast-track completion of the Dakota Access pipeline as an example of the administration’s preference for industry over vulnerable communities. In December, after months of protest by indigenous communities as well as social justice and environmental groups, the Obama administration temporarily halted construction on the controversial pipeline and ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a full study of the pipeline’s potential environmental impacts. A month later, President Trump issued an executive order directing the Army Corps to approve the pipeline in an “expedited” manner, effectively canceling the previous administration’s request for further environmental review,
Indigenous groups won a victory in mid-June, however, when a court found that the administration had failed to fully consider the environmental impacts of the project, especially on the drinking water of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. The court ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to more fully consider the project’s potential impacts, though it’s unclear whether the pipeline will remain operational during the review. It became operational in June and has already suffered three minor leaks.
The report also cites the Trump administration’s decision to delay an Obama-era update to the rules that govern how industrial facilities — particularly those that store hazardous chemicals — plan for and respond to potential disasters. Known as the Risk Management Plan rule, the Obama administration’s updates would have required facilities to contract with third-party auditors following accidents and would have forced companies to create enhanced emergency response plans in the event of a toxic discharge. In March, Pruitt announced that the EPA was delaying implementation of these RMP updates until 2019, citing requests from industry.
Just months later, in the wake of devastating flooding from Hurricane Harvey that left parts of Houston under feet of water, the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas suffered a series of explosions and fires. More than 300 residents were evacuated from a 1.5-mile radius around the plant to avoid any toxic health impacts. The facility would have been covered by the updated RMP plan, but the company was part of the industry coalition that lobbied for its delay.
Facilities that handle hazardous chemicals and waste tend to be disproportionately concentrated in low-income communities of color, meaning that facilities impacted by the delay of the RMP rule are more likely to be near vulnerable communities.
The report also looks at suggested cuts to the EPA’s environmental justice programs, as presented in the Trump administration’s proposed budget. The administration has proposed eliminating eliminate the Lead Risk Reduction Program, for instance, which is charged with reducing childhood exposure to lead-based paint. The Trump administration has also proposed eliminating the Department of Justice’s budget to help EPA prosecute Superfund cases to ensure that industry actors actually work to remediate the areas they have polluted.