Cut Environmental Justice at the EPA, and We All Lose

Trump likens our “inner cities” to war zones . . . then guts the programs geared to safeguard clean air and water for low-income communities of color.

Alaska is warming at a rate two to three times faster than the mainland United States and the many indigenous communities along its coast, like the Inupiat villages of Kivalina and Shishmaref, are grappling with the impacts.

Credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Mustafa Ali worked at the Environmental Protection Agency for 24 years. Last week he resigned from his position as senior adviser and assistant associate administrator for environmental justice—an office he helped found in 1992 during the Bush administration, and one that Donald Trump intends to gut as the administration moves to cut the agency’s funding by 31 percent and eliminate more than 3,200 staff positions. In his letter of resignation, Ali urged EPA administrator Scott Pruitt to “converse with those who need our help the most.”

The federal government has recognized for decades that air and water quality are especially poor in low-income areas and communities of color, and some of that imbalance stems directly from government permitting decisions, such as where to allow the dumping of toxic materials. Since at least 1994, a relatively small sum of federal money has gone to remedying this injustice. But even that modest amount may soon disappear. Reports suggest the Trump administration plans to cut environmental justice programs within the federal government and to stop issuing small EJ grants to community groups.

“EJ programs help the federal government engage communities, work with sovereign tribes, and focus enforcement where it is needed most. All of that would be cut,” warns Al Huang, director of NRDC’s environmental justice program.

These cuts will affect communities in myriad ways. Through direct federal funding, the EPA produced EJSCREEN, a mapping tool that allows Americans to identify sources of pollution and contamination near their homes. If money for environmental justice disappears, we might lose this enormously useful tool. Although EJSCREEN is less than two years old, it has already provided important data to governments making permitting decisions. It has also raised public awareness of local pollution issues, as in the communities of color living adjacent to Los Angeles’s Montrose and Del Amo Superfund sites, where synthetic rubber and DDT were produced for decades, and where lingering air and groundwater contamination continue to pose serious health risks.

EJ programs have also worked to address the problem of heat islands—urban areas that are short on green space and consequently absorb and retain high temperatures. Data show unequivocally that people of color and the elderly suffer more deaths and heat-related illness when temperatures spike.

According to the EPA, among the U.S. groups most likely to suffer from climate change are city dwellers and the poor. These demographic groups closely trace racial and ethnic lines. The urban poverty rates for African-Americans, indigenous peoples, and Latinos are between 24 percent and 27 percent, while the poverty rate for white urbanites is just 13 percent. When extreme weather and rising sea levels disproportionately afflict and displace communities of color in American cities, EJ funding is intended to mitigate that imbalance.

Indigenous communities like the Yupik residents of Newtok, Alaska, are grappling with the impacts of climate change.
Credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

President Obama worked to bring attention to the problem of climate injustice in September 2015 when he visited the Inupiat hub town of Kotzebue, Alaska. There, a recently constructed $34 million seawall is straining to protect homes and businesses that border the encroaching Chukchi Sea, and surrounding villages like Kivalina and Shishmaref are grappling with the prospect of relocation. These communities have no guarantee of support from the EPA, which spent a little over $78 million in Alaska in fiscal year 2016, including funding for climate change programs to aid indigenous Alaskan peoples.

In addition to reducing and eliminating direct funding for federal environmental justice programs, the Trump administration will likely wipe out the EPA’s small grant program that supports local groups working on equity issues. Since 1994 the program has delivered $24 million to 1,400 community groups, many of whom rely on up to $30,000 from the EPA as the lion’s share of their funding. For other grantees, this support provides the seed money to turn a one-person operation into an effective community group.

“These cuts are a direct attack on low-income communities and communities of color everywhere who are on the front lines of toxic pollution,” says Huang.

The success stories are both impactful and inspirational. For decades, the low-income communities of color in Spartanburg, South Carolina, suffered significant health problems from industrial and disposal sites adjacent to their homes, a result of inadequate zoning laws. In 1997, alarmed by the early deaths of his neighbors, Harold Mitchell founded ReGenesis with the help of a $20,000 EPA grant. In the ensuing 20 years, ReGenesis turned that investment into $250 million worth of financing from both the public and private sectors. The group helped deliver a health center and improved housing tracts to the people of Spartanburg. It funded the construction of an emergency road to provide access in and out of poor communities when freight trains blocked the main artery. And ReGenesis forced polluters to clean up contaminated industrial sites, turning wasted, toxic land into usable plots for homes and businesses. All of this community work came from that $20,000 EPA grant—funding that the Trump administration intends to abolish.

Then there’s T.E.J.A.S., or Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services. Also founded in the mid-1990s, T.E.J.A.S. advocates for environmental justice among predominantly Latino communities in its namesake state. The group provides air monitoring services so people know what they’re taking into their lungs. It identifies and fights for schools built on or near known contamination sites. (Many of the most polluted schools in the country are located in and around Houston.) T.E.J.A.S. also informs people about potentially hazardous industrial sites near their homes—sites like the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas, where an explosion in 2013 killed 15 people, including firefighters and community members who’d volunteered to battle the blaze, and damaged nearby homes. T.E.J.A.S. has worked to avert more of these disasters through public awareness and educational services. T.E.J.A.S. has received more than $30,000 in critical EPA grant money since 2014.

So these are just some of the communities at greatest risk from Trump’s EPA cuts: indigenous villagers in Alaska, poor children of color in South Carolina, Latino families in Houston.

Reductions to any of the EPA’s programs will directly endanger basic human rights, including the rights to health and well-being. But cuts to the EJ programs—which will have the biggest impact on communities that are already contaminated and underserved—will also violate civil rights.

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