Rolling back fuel efficiency standards is an attack on communities of color

Rolling back fuel efficiency standards is an attack on communities of color
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The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced that it would weaken the rules governing the amount of pollution cars and trucks can emit. This move opens the door for auto companies to manufacture dirtier cars and is just the latest in a string of actions by the Trump administration to gut critical protections for cleaner air. For low-income communities and communities of color, a rollback of these standards could mean life or death — in fact, far more robust standards are necessary to protect our public health.

In 1970, the Nixon administration created the EPA and under the Clean Air Act, gave the agency the authority to regulate the amount of pollution from the tailpipes of cars and trucks. Over the past five decades, this regulation has been successful in improving air quality by reducing hazardous air pollutants like nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and particulate matter, which all pose a grave danger to public health.


When it comes to emissions, new cars run almost 100 percent cleaner than they did before national standards kicked into gear, and cities have seen dramatic improvements in air quality as a result. Unfortunately, these improvements have not been equally distributed across neighborhoods and we still have a long way to go in protecting our communities that continue to be impacted by air pollution from motor vehicles.


The Centers for Disease Control finds that low-income people and people of color are more likely to live near major highways, and are therefore exposed to more traffic and traffic-related air pollution. Cars release harmful substances like hydrocarbons, an ingredient in ground-level ozone, which is a gas that irritates the lungs and airways and can trigger asthma attacks. African-Americans are three times more likely than whites to die from asthma-related causes, and the EPA found that African Americans are 54 percent more likely to be exposed to air pollution than their white counterparts.

Five of seven of the city’s MTA bus depots are located in Northern Manhattan, where WE ACT works. The presence of the bus depots creates a high concentration of diesel exhaust. Diesel exhaust contains tiny particles that can enter the lungs and increase the risk of asthma — as well as emphysema, heart attacks and even premature death.

In 1997, WE ACT encouraged New York’s transit authority to adopt diesel retrofit and hybrid buses that reduced tailpipe emissions by 95 percent, thereby improving the air quality and health of these neighborhoods. But still, almost 20 years later, we find ourselves again at the mercy of the nation’s transportation sector. Children in East Harlem, for example, are still three times more likely than the average person in New York City to end up hospitalized for asthma, making the issue of motor vehicle pollution something we continue to deal with every day.

The EPA’s announcement kicks off a process for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to propose a new set of lowered CAFÉ standards — which dictate how much mileage a car gets per gallon of gas, and therefore the amount that cars can pollute. This announcement comes after the EPA found that car companies could easily meet stricter standards that would have led to up to $2 million in health benefits by 2025. By taking this action, the EPA is failing its mission to improve the health of all Americans, and specifically the health of low-income people and people of color.

Instead of allowing vehicles to pollute more, the EPA should be adopting standards that promote even greater fuel efficiency in order to protect the health of our communities and promote cleaner modes of transportation. It’s time for the Trump administration to ask itself what is of greater benefit to our society -— reduction in pollution-related disease, lower health-care costs and greater quality of life, or ceding to the forceful lobbying of the auto industry to make changes that have no long-term benefit?

Cleaner cars and trucks have direct and life-changing impacts on the health of all communities, particularly those communities of color. Strengthening existing fuel efficiency standards will prove that the administration takes the health of vulnerable communities seriously. Reducing vehicle standards when public health inequalities of this magnitude still exist is simply irresponsible.

Adrienne L. Hollis, Ph.D., is the director of Federal Policy at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, in the Washington, DC office. Hollis is an experienced environmental toxicologist as well as an environmental attorney. She has worked with a number of community organizations and has a wealth of experience in community-based participatory research around environmental justice issues.