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DISPROPORTIONATE EFFECTS:President TrumpDonald TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race 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.
“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 it comes amid historic protests over injustices faced by black Americans and other minorities.
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.
“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 neighborhoods.
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota has been battling the Dakota Access Pipeline over fears it may contaminate drinking water. A historically black community in Virginia blocked an Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor station set to pass through its 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 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.”
CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENCE: Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told lawmakers on Friday that U.S. Park Police (USPP) officers faced “a state of siege” leading up to the clearing of protesters near the White House earlier in the week, saying violence during the demonstrations was “indisputable.”
Bernhardt's letter to lawmakers comes as congressional Democrats seek an explanation for why chemical agents were used to clear those peacefully protesting George Floyd’s death at Lafayette Square on Monday shortly before President Trump left the White House to visit a nearby church for a photo-op.
“Beginning on Saturday May, 30, 2020, the USPP were under a state of siege and routinely subject to attack by violent crowds," Bernhardt wrote to members of the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the Interior Department.
"The incidents are numerous and include USPP officers having their police cars vandalized; being subject to bombardment by lighted flares; Molotov cocktails, rocks, bricks, bottles and other projectiles; and physical assault so violent that to date over 50 area law enforcement officers have been injured to some degree,” Bernhardt wrote, adding that one officer required emergency surgery.
Bernhardt’s response proved unsatisfactory to lawmakers on the Democratic-led panel who had requested a briefing on Park Police tactics used during the clearing.
“That you attempted to ‘respond’ to our letter without actually responding to our request for a briefing is irresponsible; that you sought to explain the police violence on June 1 without mentioning that the goal was to allow a frightened president to pose for a photo-op with a borrowed Bible is pathetic. Efforts to spin a narrative plainly contradicted by video evidence is folly,” Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said in a letter to Bernhardt late Friday.
While there have been numerous reports of looting of businesses and vandalism of federal buildings in Washington, D.C., Monday’s protests were generally peaceful before protesters were cleared using chemical agents before a 7 p.m. curfew took effect.
Bernhardt insisted in his letter that “while standard equipment ... like pepper balls” were used to clear the crowds on Monday evening, “no tear gas was used by USPP or associated agents at Lafayette Park.”
A Park Police spokesman on Friday said it was a "mistake" to say that no tear gas was used given that chemical agents that law enforcement officers deployed cause similar eye and lung irritation.
Bernhardt also said the Monday protests included demonstrators who “began assaulting law enforcement with projectiles while threatening to storm the secured areas,” ending his letter with an offer for lawmakers to accompany him when he visits injured officers.
Grijalva said he would accept.
“Please identify a date and time when we can speak with any U.S. Park Police officer injured on June 1, as well as the leadership of the force,” he wrote. “We will also invite victims of USPP violence during this incident to participate.”
FLYING AWAY: The Trump administration’s plan to ease penalties on companies that accidentally kill birds would have a “likely negative” effect on migratory species, according to a new government analysis.
The study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, released Friday, comes as the administration moves forward with lifting protections that have been in place for more than a century.
The administration's proposal would punish oil and gas and construction companies only if they intentionally kill birds, ending the practice of penalties for firms that “incidentally” do so.
The environmental analysis of the proposal noted that the changes would provide regulatory certainty for businesses and that companies would be less likely to take measures to protect birds unless they are forced to by law.
“As the legal certainty increases, fewer entities would likely implement best practices ... resulting in increased bird mortality,” the report said. "This effect is reduced where best practices are required by other state and federal laws.”
Efforts to finalize the proposal come as bird populations are rapidly decreasing. The U.S. and Canada have lost some 3 billion birds since 1970, a decline researchers attribute to pesticide use, habitat loss and climate change.
Moving forward with the proposal would cement an order currently in place from the Department of the Interior that limits the reach of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), which the agency has argued is too severe.
“Interpreting the MBTA to apply to incidental or accidental actions hangs the sword of Damocles over a host of otherwise lawful and productive actions, threatening up to six months in jail and a $15,000 penalty for each and every bird injured or killed,” Daniel Jorjani, Interior’s solicitor, wrote when the proposal was first drafted.
Environmentalists criticized the Fish and Wildlife study.
Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, called the analysis “a cynical effort” to justify a policy that is “clearly bad for birds, clearly cruel and inconsistent with the MBTA in every way.”
HANDLING HURRICANES? Atlantic hurricane season officially started Monday, bringing with it concern about the U.S.’s ability — amid the coronavirus pandemic — to proficiently handle what has been predicted to be an above-average season.
Concerns about adequate resources for some of the government’s key agencies that fight natural disasters in the country have surfaced after considerable funding, personnel and equipment have already been pumped into fighting the coronavirus.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), often the first agency called when a major hurricane hits land, has already allocated considerable resources to fighting COVID-19.
According to an agency spokesperson, more than 3,100 FEMA employees have been tasked with combating the pandemic. As of April 30, FEMA had committed $5.4 billion to COVID-19 relief assistance from its disaster relief fund.
And thanks to one of Congress’s multiple coronavirus stimulus packages, the agency’s disaster relief fund was boosted to $45 billion. In its most recent report to Congress on its relief fund, FEMA stated that the fund had roughly $74.2 billion in it going into May.
While $74 billion may seem like more than enough, a major hurricane could run the fund completely dry. For reference, in 2017, Hurricane Harvey — a category 4 hurricane — did an estimated $125 billion in damage to Houston.
DEBATE PARKED: The Senate voted 80-17 on Monday to limit debate on a bill that would provide money for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and address a national parks maintenance backlog.
ON TAP TOMORROW:
The House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a remote hearing titled "Pollution and Pandemics: COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on Environmental Justice Communities.”
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on wildfire management amid the pandemic
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources panel will also hold a business meeting to consider the nomination Mark Menezes, to be the Deputy Secretary of Energy.
The House Natural Resources Committee will hold a virtual forum on "how best to build a pro-jobs, pro-environment economy after the coronavirus pandemic has subsided."
OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY:
Borrowed time: Climate change threatens U.S. mortgage market, Politico reports
Civil rights leaders call for more diverse oil and gas industry, Axios reports
Feds have $4.6 billion plan to protect Miami-Dade from hurricanes: walls and elevation, The Miami Herald reports
Amazon rainforest fire season starts with outlook for record burn, Bloomberg News reports
ICYMI: Stories from Monday and over the weekend…
Oil giant BP cuts 10,000 employees
House Judiciary seeks briefing on Trump order to slash regs to assist the economy
OPEC, allies extend initial oil cuts by one month
Democrats want briefing on how FEMA will manage natural disasters amid pandemic
FROM THE HILL’S OPINION PAGES:
You may pay more at the pump, as OPEC+ cuts oil production, writes Simon Henderson, the director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.