Today, in the United States, race is still the most significant predictor of who suffers most from pollution.
Communities of color – as well as Latino, Native American and low-income white communities – endure disproportionate exposure to air and water pollution, hazardous waste, and environmental contamination, all of which seriously impact the health and well-being of those communities.
Having the Means to Fight Back
As a dad who’s made more than enough anxious trips to the emergency room with his wheezing son, I’m acutely aware of the impact of asthma on a kid’s life. But I also happen to be a white male who lives in an area of my state that has not been subjected to the kinds of overt and widespread pollution that have victimized the communities cited above.
No one is immune to pollution (Tweet this), but when it comes to local environmental issues, the stakeholders in areas like mine often have access to representation, information, influence, zoning laws, money and power to organize against and confront environmental threats. They are also able to put in place, if they haven’t already done so, protections to preempt those threats. Race counts. So does the value of real estate. As a result, communities like mine rarely get targeted by polluters.
The Need for Environmental Justice
In the 1990s, the EPA recognized the disparity between communities with the means to respond to environmental concerns and those that are most vulnerable and least powerful. And so it adopted the concept of environmental justice, “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, particularly minority, low-income and indigenous populations, in the environmental decision-making process.”
This prioritized giving stakeholders in these communities a voice, a line of communication and means of empowerment that would allow them to organize and respond to local pollution situations. For more than twenty years, grant programs like the EJ small grants and Collaborative Problem Solving programs have assisted over 1,400 communities in dealing with pollution issues. In many cases this approach has also sparked ideas and action that result in beneficial economic development.
So what’s the outlook for environmental justice in these vulnerable communities under new EPA head Scott Pruitt?
It is not good.
President Trump’s budget proposal includes a 31% cut to the EPA budget. Pruitt has stated that “the budget reorients EPA’s air program to protect the air we breathe without unduly burdening the economy.” This emphasis on regulations as an impediment to economic growth translates to serious cuts to enforcement and compliance even as many important regulations have already been rolled back and more are targeted. While this approach and these actions will have onerous consequences for everyone, they will be even more devastating for disenfranchised, vulnerable communities.
One of the many dire consequences of the proposed cuts will be the withdrawal of all funding for the Office of Environmental Justice. The OEJ will be eliminated.
This is an unconscionable threat to the concept of “equal protection under the law” and to the years of diligent work and important progress the EPA has made in helping to protect our most vulnerable communities from pollution.
When faced with this impending reality, Mustafa Ali, a senior advisor for environmental justice to former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and a founding member of the Office of Environmental Justice during the George H. W. Bush administration, tendered his resignation to Pruitt on March 8th. In a concise, measured, three-page letter, the 24-year veteran of the agency explained the importance of the OEJ and its programs, and implored Pruitt to seize the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring people together, to ensure that all communities have safe places to live, learn, work, play and pray and to ensure that our most vulnerable communities, who have been struggling for clean air to breathe and clean water to drink becomes a reality for them and their children.”
Whether Scott Pruitt responds positively – or at all – to Ali’s letter remains to be seen, but it is highly doubtful. One thing is for certain: The dismantling of the OEJ would effectively silence vulnerable communities while putting the EPA in the shameful position of sanctioning environmental discrimination. And that would be a disgrace.