Trump threatens a crucial tool that promotes transparency and protects community health
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The state of our union is polluted.

That is the view of millions of people in this country who do not have access to clean air and water, or toxic-free environments. And recently, the Trump administration has mounted a charge to ensure that we have no recourse to combat new attacks on our health and quality of life.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has been an important tool for democratizing federal projects in communities. It requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impacts of their proposed actions prior to finalizing permit applications, federal land management actions, and the construction of highways, bridges, pipelines, and publicly owned facilities.

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The federal government has had to follow this assessment process, which includes soliciting input from community members affected by their polluting projects, since the passage of NEPA in 1970. This environmental review works to ensure that we understand and speak up about a project’s potential impact on our health, property, and land use. It attempts to answer these questions: Will our neighborhood’s social cohesion and sustainability be diminished? What effect will this have on our air, soil, and water quality? And how viable are our property rights in the face of eminent domain being exerted?

Last month, the White House proposed changes to NEPA that will erode the process for environmental review and weaken our ability to offer our experiences and perspectives in response to potentially destructive and life-altering projects being built in our backyards. Even affluent communities may find themselves blindsided by environmental degradation.

Another disturbing change the Trump administration is proposing is to allow corporations to conduct the environmental reviews for their own projects – essentially calculating and reporting their own pollution. But can we trust these corporations to provide true calculations of the potential harm they are doing to our communities? We have concerns about the impact of this gift to industry on our well-being. We also see this for what it is: a conflict of interest.

But one of the most serious changes to the environmental review process will be the removal of cumulative impacts requirements. This assessment as it stands compels federal agencies to consider the combined effects of pollution from multiple sources. The harm of removing cumulative impacts requirements won’t be shared equally: the risk will be greater in areas that are predominantly African American, Hispanic, and low income -- and the harm will be exacerbated in areas where residents currently breathe air that does not meet existing national quality standards.

We see this demonstrated in places like Cancer Alley in Louisiana, where people living between Baton Rouge and New Orleans are surrounded by chemical plants and oil refineries. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that airborne cancer risk near these toxic facilities are the highest in the nation.

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A refusal to consider the cumulative impacts of new polluting projects is detrimental to fighting the climate crisis and ensuring community stability. A single pipeline or highway may not alter our climate on its own but, when combined with existing fossil fuel projects, it contributes to a worsening and devastating crisis and quality of life.

Our organizations, WE ACT for Environmental Justice and the Center for American Progress, have decades of experience with the environmental review process that comes from working inside the White House, living in frontline communities, and standing with those that are burdened with legacy pollution and are most at risk for future environmental harm.

We are aware of the civil disruption caused when highways, bridges, and pipelines split thriving neighborhoods, resulting in shuttered businesses and disrupted social cohesion. We know how critical environmental reviews are in the fight against environmental racism and in ensuring climate mitigation and adaptation measures are considered.

The implementation of environmental review has been far from perfect. Many projects that have harmed communities living at the edge of polluting facilities have proceeded, despite community outcry and demonstrated harm. But, even so, mandatory environmental review and public input are the first lines of defense for urban and rural neighborhoods facing massive, toxic projects that are fence line to their homes.

Modernizing environmental review does not call for gutting the process as it stands now. We should instead use it as a foundation to build even stronger protections for all of us – including those most vulnerable to the effects of environmental racism and climate change.

Christy Goldfuss is Senior Vice President for Energy and Environment Policy at the Center for American Progress and the former managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Peggy Shepard is co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice.