In Trump response to coronavirus, left sees environmental injustice
Democratic lawmakers and advocates at a hearing on Tuesday said environmental rollbacks pursued by the Trump administration to boost an economy damaged by the coronavirus outbreak are doing harm to minority communities.
In March, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a memo informing companies they would not face penalties for failing to follow laws requiring monitoring of pollution, so long as the pandemic prevented them from doing so.
Since then, President Trump has issued an executive order in May ordered agencies to roll back any regulation that they deem might inhibit economic growth. Another order issued last week waived requirements for environmental review under a suite of environmental laws.
Activists and some Democrats at the House Energy and Commerce hearing said these rules will hit minority communities the hardest.
“For too long, the people living in these communities have borne a disproportionate share of pollution and its health risks,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the committee’s chairman.
“When the Trump administration rolls back protections under the Clean Air Act it hurts these communities most. When this administration announces that it will not enforce some environmental laws and regulations during the pandemic, that hurts these communities, too. And when President Trump issues an executive order circumventing the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, that completely cuts the voices of these communities out of the decision-making process,” he said.
During the hearing, the police killing of George Floyd, whose funeral was held Tuesday in Houston, was referenced repeatedly in emotional speeches from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle,
“Black communities are dealing with the systemic racism that has infected the policing in our communities that is literally choking us to death. The rolling back of environmental rules and regulations has us gasping for air due to the cumulative public health impacts from the burning of fossil fuels,” 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.
“When we say, ‘I Can’t Breathe’ we literally can’t breathe.”
The hearing was called to evaluate the ties between how pollution can exacerbate the effects of the pandemic, following a Harvard University study linking air pollution to higher coronavirus death rates.
But recent protests against police violence broadened the scope of the conversation to the numerous ways some communities are struggling with inequalities.
“As a country, we should be listening to others with different viewpoints and backgrounds, learning about their experiences and feelings, and taking action to form a more perfect Union that ensures justice and equality are available to all Americans, regardless of skin color,” Ranking Member Greg Walden said after condemning the killing of Floyd.
“In many ways, today’s hearing seems to touch upon all these different circumstances. There is a bipartisan desire to explore how COVID-19 disproportionately impacted minority communities – whether it be socially, environmentally, or economically.”
Studies have repeatedly found minority and low income communities face higher levels of pollution and are more likely to be chosen as the landing spot for polluting industries.
Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) has introduced a measure to funnel $50 million in EPA grants to such communities. It was included in the latest coronavirus stimulus package passed by the House, but the Senate has not yet acted on the legislation and is expected to approve its own measure.
Jacqueline Patterson, senior director of the Environmental and Climate Justice Program at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said they’ve been pushing for a number of stronger environmental regulations in order to protect those impacted by decades of pollution who are now doubly impacted by the new regulations pushed during the outbreak.
“Once again we have a response by the administration that prioritizes protecting the profits of big corporations while comparatively neglecting to advance action at the scale and depth that truly upholds the well being of people,” she said.
“All of this combines to ensure that black indigenous and other communities are facing the harshest fallout of direct impact of Covid-19.”