Trump does not know what environmental injustice looks like
In last week’s presidential debate, when asked what he would say to families living near oil refineries and chemical plants, President Trump said, “I have not heard the numbers or the statistics that you’re saying, but they’re making a tremendous amount of money.”
Based on this response, his record of cutting essential environmental protections and his seeming indifference to communities on the fencelines of polluting industries, Trump clearly does not understand the true costs of pollution. Last week’s presidential debate questions on race, public health and climate may have been separated into separate segments, but these issues are inextricably linked. Whether it’s increased risks of cancer and higher health care costs, poor school performance or lower home values, communities in close proximity to our nation’s toxic waste and pollution have suffered for far too long. From Cancer Alley in Louisiana, to Houston’s East End and Detroit’s 48217 zip code, environmental justice communities throughout our nation deserve a president who understands why fighting for clean air and water for all communities is so important.
One of the most significant costs of pollution are those borne by our nation’s school children. While schools face a number of challenges, from underpaid staff, to lead and mold exposure, pollution tied to school siting may be one of the most significant factors undermining student achievement. In 2019, Michigan’s only refinery, located in the state’s most polluted zip code and feet away from the neighborhood’s only school, had several toxic release events that exposed residents in Detroit to toxic and sickening odors.
In response, and given significant concerns that pollution put schoolchildren in harm’s way, local advocates fought to secure funding for air filtration systems for classrooms. There’s significant research to back up these concerns. A recent study found that learning in heavily polluted environments drives down student test scores, drives up school absenteeism and leads to greater instances of behavioral issues. This impact is so significant because the wellbeing of any community, from long term economic prosperity to health and safety, is dependent on the future of that community’s children and school performance is tied directly to the environments in which students learn.
With nearly 1 million students attending schools in close proximity to facilities that release lead, mercury, manganese and other developmental toxins, this is truly a national crisis.
But schools aren’t the only facilities significantly impacted when they are located near polluters. As expected, the value of a home plummets when located next to a refinery, chemical plant or toxic waste facility. These externalities are not carried randomly, fairly or equally. Driven by a history of racial segregation, redlining and failed environmental policies, communities of color make up 65 percent of those located adjacent to hazardous waste facilities despite making up only 25 percent of Michigan’s population. A 2015 study estimated an 11 percent decline in values for homes located near industrial plant openings. In a nation where home equity is a cornerstone of generational wealth building, these pollution related costs have significant economic and racial justice implications.
Houston, the city in which I attended university, is home to the petrochemical industry, which has served as a counterweight to efforts aimed at making Houstonians healthier. This was apparent in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey when high levels of benzene (a carcinogenic) were detected by independent monitors in several neighborhoods abutting the city’s refineries. With toxic exposure carried throughout neighborhoods as superfund sites, refineries and chemical plants flooded, the true costs of living in close proximity to hazardous facilities has become clearer.
Throughout our nation, residents on the fence lines of these sites spend exorbitant amounts of money for health care, excess time in hospitals for respiratory issues and suffer from higher rates of birth defects, all tied to toxic pollution. As important as health care policy is in this election, the links between living next to major polluters and public health should not be ignored.
Trump may believe that this pain is worth it, but he may be unaware that poor school performance, dropping home values and higher health care costs all tied to pollution, are simply not offset by job opportunities enjoyed by suffering residents. In Detroit for example, despite hundreds of millions in tax breaks and subsidies, 92 percent of those working at Detroit’s refinery, live outside of the city they pollute in.
To be clear, the health of our economy and the health of our communities should never be placed in conflict. Between restoring many environmental protections that have been cut, reducing harmful emissions, increasing mitigation efforts that require home buyouts and buffer zones between industry and neighborhoods and investing in green jobs and infrastructure to reestablish American manufacturing dominance, we do not have to settle for zero sum conflict.
Given that Trump has continued to pit access to good jobs against access to clean air, given that he has continued to turn a blind eye to the true costs of air pollution, voters should elect a new president who will fight for environmental justice.
Justin Onwenu is an environmental justice organizer for The Sierra Club in Detroit. He is also a Public Voices fellow of the OpEd Project and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Follow him on Twitter at @JustinOnwenu.