Trump's latest environmental rollback threatens minority communities, experts warn

Trump's latest environmental rollback threatens minority communities, experts warn
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpKimberly Guilfoyle reports being asymptomatic and 'feeling really pretty good' after COVID-19 diagnosis Biden says he will rejoin WHO on his first day in office Lincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad MORE’s latest executive order, lifting environmental review of major projects, will have a disproportionately harmful effect on minorities, experts warn.

The order signed on Thursday relies on emergency authorities to sidestep a suite of environmental laws, allowing for the fast-tracking of major construction projects in a bid to boost the economy.

That could mean rapid approval of not just highways but also pipelines, oil and gas projects and other polluting industries that have historically landed in communities of color.

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“It shows again that they have no respect for the lives in these communities that are already overburdened,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, with the National Wildlife Federation, who was previously a senior adviser for environmental justice at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the Obama administration.

“Trump’s actions put a spotlight on black lives don’t matter.”

Advocates point to a growing body of research that details the impacts of polluting infrastructure that is often found in or near black, Latino, and Native American communities. 

A 2018 EPA study found black Americans are subjected to higher levels of air pollution than whites, while a 2011 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.

Those same communities often have worse health outcomes, with black populations presenting higher rates of asthma and cancer deaths.

But Trump’s order closes a number of avenues that have been used by communities to fight back against unwanted projects, and his move comes amid historic protests over injustices faced by blacks and other minorities.

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The order also slashes requirements in a number of landmark environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires rigorous environmental review before building new infrastructure like highways or pipelines.

NEPA usually requires community feedback -- a process that would be nixed under emergency authorities that are typically used to respond to natural disasters like floods.

“Our first and arguably our only environmental justice law we have on the books is NEPA because it provides an opportunity for affected citizens and communities to object before the federal government approves a project that may have a dramatically negative impact on their community. It’s a disclosure and empowerment statute that is the granddaddy of all environmental laws,” said David Hayes, executive director of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at New York University's School of Law. 

“Here we are in the midst of an epidemic that affects your respiratory system and communities that are concerned about respiratory health are losing a voice to stop projects that exacerbate serious health issues.”

Communities are already fighting a number of major projects they don’t want in their neighborhood.

The Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota has been battling the Dakota Access Pipeline over fears it may contaminate their drinking water. A historically black community in Virginia blocked an Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor station set to pass through their neighborhood. And in Uniontown, Ala., residents are fighting toxic leach from a landfill drenched with carcinogenic coal ash alongside two different factories emitting noxious odor.

“I suspect this president will attempt to use this loosely worded executive order to sidestep or evade the laws that govern approval of pipelines,” said Stephan Volker, who has represented the Indigenous Environmental Network in lawsuits against the Keystone XL pipeline.

“The president gets his agenda from his corporate buddies, make no mistake, so they’ve given him a wishlist, and that's the only reference he’ll be utilizing to pursue this lawless agenda.”

The White House did not respond to any of The Hill’s inquiries on the consequences the executive order might have for minorities, but instead said the order would “accelerate the nation’s economic recovery and improve America’s infrastructure.”

In his order, Trump wrote: “From the beginning of my Administration, I have focused on reforming and streamlining an outdated regulatory system that has held back our economy with needless paperwork and costly delays. The need for continued progress in this streamlining effort is all the more acute now, due to the ongoing economic crisis.”

But advocates say it’s the most vulnerable communities that will bear the brunt of the consequences of sidestepping environmental regulations in the name of boosting the economy.

“If you're not doing a full NEPA analysis, you know, an environmental impact statement, then you have no idea one, about what the impacts are, and two, how to put the proper mitigations in place to keep people safe,” Ali said. 

“So once again, it is literally placing profit over people, and the economy over people. And there is a way of balancing out both. If you're willing to do the work.”

The Trump administration has taken numerous stabs at limiting NEPA, including a January proposal that would severely weaken the law, along with a May executive order telling agencies to work to lift any regulations that inhibit economic growth. 

That prompted calls from conservative groups to further limit the reach of NEPA.

Critics of Trump’s order have argued environmental regulations don’t inhibit economic growth and that the Trump administration’s efforts have come too late in the pandemic to provide a real boost to an economy with a 13.3 percent unemployment rate.

They also believe the executive order is likely illegal.

The order relies on similar legal authority Trump used to pursue constriction of the border wall with Mexico, but Hayes said this order lacks the connection to anti-terrorism laws that have been used to help defend the border wall.

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He said the executive order is a stretch of provisions that typically allow environmental provisions to be waived in the face of natural disasters like hurricanes and floods.

“There's no connection to this economic emergency, this slow moving and terrible, yes, economic emergency,” he said. 

“This is saying, ‘Come to me, Cabinet official, with any project you can find of any type that you think would be helpful to get moving right away and use emergency authority. Whatever it is, whatever you can find to approve these projects.’”