Want to Make America Great Again? Don’t Let Its People Breathe or Drink Poison.

The cruel and un-American folly of shutting down the EPA’s environmental justice program.

March 10, 2017

Paul Domenick/Flickr

When forced to choose between the various depredations President Trump has thrust upon the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it’s hard to pick one that best encapsulates that special blend of ignorance, contempt, and hypocrisy that has marked his administration’s dealings with the agency so far.

Selecting Scott Pruitt—a climate denier with a penchant for hiring other climate deniers—to helm the EPA certainly seems like a good contender. Trump’s stated desire to dismantle the Clean Water Rule, which the agency administers and enforces, certainly fits the bill, too. But then, so does his proposal to cut the EPA’s $8.3 billion budget by 24 percent, or that same proposal’s implicit promise to eliminate nearly 3,000 jobs that are critical to carrying out the EPA’s task of reducing toxic pollution and keeping Americans safe.

Despite all those possibilities, I think the clearest indicator of the president’s disregard of the EPA’s public safety mission—and yet another instance of this young administration’s political shortsightedness—is its decision to effectively get rid of the environmental justice program.

Since its founding in the early 1990s, this program has helped low-income families and communities of color combat harmful pollution in their neighborhoods. The program funds local cleanup efforts and helps ensure that these communities get a say as to where toxic sites and facilities are located. Yesterday, lest there be any doubt that the administration is intent on dismantling his department, program head Mustafa Ali announced his resignation in a heartfelt letter to Pruitt. In it Ali wrote that he “wonder[s] if our new leadership has had the opportunity to converse with those who need our help the most,” and he personally asked the new EPA director “to continue promoting agency efforts to validate these communities’ concerns, and value their lives.”

It’s a perfectly gracious resignation letter; one wonders, however, if such graciousness is really merited. The budget for the environmental justice program in 2016 was $6.7 million, less than one one-thousandth of what the EPA spends annually. Make no mistake: By slashing the environmental justice program’s budget by 78 percent, Trump and Pruitt are not making a statement about government efficiency or the need for belt-tightening. They’re signaling to their base that they simply don’t believe environmental justice is important—or at least that it’s not important enough for the federal government to take seriously.

Mustafa Ali resigned from Trump's EPA this week.

Environmental Change and Security Program/Flickr

Setting aside the moral lassitude of their decision, it’s also just plain boneheaded at the basic level of retail politics. Here’s why: Pursuing environmental justice pays social and economic dividends of precisely the sort that the Trump administration claims America needs most right now. Numerous studies, in fact, have confirmed what common sense already suggests: namely, that environmental factors within a given community have a calculable effect on crime rates, academic performance, worker productivity, and economic development. Trump based his campaign on these issues. If he actually cares about them, then he should see that strengthening the physical environments of vulnerable communities represents one of the most cost-effective ways of bringing down crime, keeping kids in school, supporting small businesses, and boosting micro-economies.

One study from 2015, for example, looked at data pertaining to more than two million crimes committed in Chicago between 2001 and 2012. Researchers from Harvard University and the University of California discovered that incidents of violent crime increased by 2.2 percent downwind from areas marked by heavy pollution. In explaining the study’s results, one researcher shared his conclusion that pollution acts as an irritant that “affects impulse control” and “basically results in you crossing lines that you wouldn’t otherwise cross.”

For some strange reason, President Trump likes to single out Chicago whenever he’s reaching for an example of a city where violent crime has spiraled out of control. It turns out that he’s wrong about Chicago, but if he really cares about the issue in general, he might want to reconsider whether funding environmental justice nationwide to the tune of $6.7 million—which is pocket change in our multitrillion-dollar federal coffers—seems like a sound investment in crime reduction in that city and others.

The ongoing tragedy in Flint, Michigan, has given us all a crash course in the sorrowful science behind lead ingestion and impaired cognitive ability in children. Such tragedies vividly illustrate the reason that we desperately need more, not less, of an emphasis on environmental justice. Indeed, we now know Flint isn’t an outlier and that low-income communities of color are far more likely than well-off white neighborhoods to be in dire need of new water infrastructure and improved safety mechanisms. As Flint continues to make disturbing daily headlines, one marvels at how tone-deaf an administration has to be to announce now, of all times, that it will be shuttering an office that’s specifically designed to address the problem.

Similarly, if President Trump wants to grow American businesses and expand economic opportunity, why would he think that letting neighborhoods—even entire cities—languish under clouds of air pollution or wallow in toxic water could help bring those things about? While it’s difficult to imagine our current president cozily settling into his Mar-a-Lago bed at night with a 120-page white paper on the relationship between air quality and economic growth in Pittsburgh, it nevertheless might not be the worst idea for him to familiarize himself with this (or any other) study showing how reducing air pollution generally translates into a healthier, happier labor force—and increased productivity, to boot.

The pursuit of environmental justice, in other words, is really the just the pursuit of goals that we all claim to value: safe communities, healthy children, vibrant economies. All that it demands of us is that we agree to pursue these goals energetically and equitably across lines of color, ethnicity, religion, and socioeconomic status. I’m not exactly sure what Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt would call that, but we used to call it “the American way.”

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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