Critics warn Trump’s latest environmental rollback could hit minorities, poor hardest
President Trump’s proposed overhaul of a bedrock environmental law aims to streamline project reviews, but those changes are likely to hit minority communities and those with high poverty rates the hardest, experts warn.
The White House on Thursday detailed a sweeping proposal to revamp the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) which requires environmental reviews for big proposed projects like highways or pipelines, as well as when polluting industries plan to discharge into the air or water.
The changes eyed by the Trump administration would limit the scope of the environmental analysis required for such projects, including allowing greater industry involvement in environmental reviews and diminishing the role climate change plays in those assessments.
Critics of the plan say that with polluting industries already more likely to set up shop in minority communities as well as those with poverty, those same areas will bear the brunt of the changes to NEPA dealing with pollution and climate change.
“The most vulnerable communities are going to pay with lives and their health. They always have,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali with the National Wildlife Federation, who was previously a senior advisor for environmental justice at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Moving forward with this is reckless and will endanger the lives of black and brown communities and indigenous communities. It’s really that simple.”
A slew of studies confirm the environmental harm affected communities already experience on a daily basis.
The EPA found black Americans are subjected to higher levels of air pollution than whites. Another study found that communities of color and low-income populations are disproportionately exposed to chemical releases. Others have found that minority and low income communities were more likely to be near hazardous waste sites. Advocates often collectively refer to these towns as environmental justice communities.
The Trump administration’s NEPA proposal would make a number of changes, including limiting study of the “cumulative” effects of new projects. Courts have largely interpreted that as studying how a project might contribute to climate change.
But Kym Hunter, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has helped many minority and low income communities battle polluting projects in their areas, said the scope is much broader.
“The focus has been on climate change, but it’s not just that,” Hunter said. “Cumulative impacts is if you have 10 different facilities dumping pollution into a river, that’s something you need to know about, and that’s no longer going to have to be disclosed.”
If Trump’s NEPA proposal is finalized, ignoring cumulative effects could also mean ignoring the numerous polluting industries that have already set up shop nearby poor or minority neighborhoods.
“I’m just thinking of a client of mine in Charlotte who lives adjacent to five different highways, has COPD, and lives in this African-American community that just been cut off by all these different highways,” Hunter said, pointing to the pollution that accumulates from exhaust.
“If an additional highway or polluting thing went in there, there’d be no need to review the cumulative impact on their health, maybe it wouldn’t need any environmental review at all.”
Hunter’s comment refers to a part of the proposal that would limit what projects fall under NEPA, allowing some to sidestep environmental reviews if they don’t rely on federal funding.
In addition to the environmental implications, communities would also lose the right they have under NEPA to comment on projects.
“It cuts the public out of any process. It cuts municipalities and communities out of any process, so they can’t demand the right to know and to have to information, and they can’t look at other options cause it will be predetermined,” said Rep. Raul Grijavla (D-Ariz.), who is crafting environmental justice legislation.
When an environmental analysis is still required, the proposal would require public comments to be more technical.
“Now they’re saying public comments have to be specific, use page numbers, explain why issues raised are significant, include or describe data sources, identify additional sources. It’s putting a lot of burden on the commenter which is a huge change,” Hunter said.
“The whole point of NEPA is to give the public a voice in the decision making process, and this just cuts that down in so many ways. The primary communities to suffer are those that already have a limited voice.”
As a project advances, communities also face the possibility of having to pay a bond—a fee to the agency—when asking for an injunction to stop the project. The proposal does not give guidelines for how much that fee should be.
“It’s already limited resources that exist inside our most vulnerable communities, so anytime there’s another financial or fiduciary aspect it creates another barrier,” Ali said.
NEPA reviews can be hundreds of pages long and take years to produce–one of the key aspects motivating the changes.
Trump has argued the changes to NEPA are necessary. His plan is the first real overhaul of the law since it was enacted 50 years ago. The administration contends the changes will streamline the lengthy NEPA process, allowing for faster construction of pipelines, highways, and other projects without sacrificing safety.
The proposal, posted to the Federal Register on Friday, faces a 60-day comment period before it can be finalized—something that would almost certainly ignite legal challenges.
Grijalva said he’s looking for ways his environmental justice legislation might be able to counter some of Trump’s proposed changes, should they become law.
“We’re looking for protections and looking out into the future, so this idea doesn’t raise its ugly head again and again,” he said.
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