As the White House was preparing to implement deep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency earlier this month, Mustafa Ali, head of the Office on Environmental Justice, resigned. A week later, his motivation for departing became clear, when President Trump released a hardline budget draft that called for slashing EPA funding by 31 percent, and eliminating as many as 3,200 agency jobs. Ali’s resignation, and the ensuing budget draft, are disturbing signs that America’s poor and people of color are going to continue suffering disproportionately from pollution under Trump. Sadly, that’s nothing new.
Ali’s resignation after 24 years with the agency came with an open letter to Scott Pruitt, the current EPA head. Pruitt supports majorly downsizing the agency, and has filed suits for years to minimize the EPA’s ability to regulate pollutants and sue penalizing companies. Ali wrote that the agency’s ability to do either will “will be magnified ten-fold in our most vulnerable communities.” Ali felt that Pruitt’s commitment to curtailing federal authority isn’t reflective of his own agenda or priorities for applying climate science. “Mine have always been focused on finding ways of helping our most vulnerable communities,” he told Gizmodo.
Ali helped to found the Office on Environmental Justice, then called the Office on Environmental Equity, in 1992. If approved, Trump’s budget would cut the office’s funding 78 percent, from $6.7 million down to $1.5 million. That’s incredibly taxing for an office with so many responsibilities. The OEJ works both within the EPA, making sure regulations and environmental protections help the vulnerable communities, and outside the agency, distributing grant money for cleaning up polluted sites, setting up clean energy sources in poor neighborhoods, and training vulnerable communities to detect air and water pollution.
“Climate justice came into being because when folks first started talking about climate [change], they weren’t talking about people, especially those who were going to be disproportionately impacted,” Ali told Gizmodo. “And as we all know, there are certain places and communities that are going to be at a distinct disadvantage.”
In the US, race is the best predictor of a person living near pollution. A 1987 report found that communities living dangerously close to landfills were overwhelmingly black and poor. Twenty years later, a 2007 report found that people of color still make up the majority of folks living within 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) of hazardous waste. This exposes them to higher rates of lead, which acts as a neurotoxin and can permanently impair cognitive abilities, as well as toxic air pollution, which increases the risk of respiratory ailments. If and when Pruitt begins drafting legislation to dismantle Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which regulates carbon emissions from power plants, his changes will have a disproportionate impact on the low income (often, black and Latinx) communities surrounding those plants. Environmental justice policies seek to account for this.
What kinds of impacts? That’s where the issue gets complicated, because you have to consider all the different ways EPA regulations (or a lack thereof) affect health and environment. The obvious one for low-income communities surrounding power plants is exposure to a higher concentration of air pollutants. Air pollutants exacerbate the symptoms of respiratory ailments like asthma and lung cancer. The many compounding economic and racial disparities do the same. A 2014 study found No2 air pollution concentration was 38% higher in poor, nonwhite communities than in affluent white neighborhoods.
In Houston, for example, black and Latinx children comprised upwards of 90% of all child asthma cases, according to a 2017 study from Rice University. A 2014 report from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People found that a “double segregation” of race and income for communities located near coal burning plants, putting them at higher risk for repository problems like asthma. Ali says that’s but one link in a long chain of pollution-related consequences.
“The impacts go beyond just the asthma attack,” Ali said. “Parents have to take off work and they may or may not have leave and they may place their jobs in jeopardy.”
The disparate impact of asthma on children of color has immediate ramifications for their educational progress—children with severe asthma miss school. According to the CDC, asthma is “one of the leading causes of school absenteeism.” This adds to the achievement gap, where black and Latino students trail behind their white counterparts in math and reading competencies.
And air pollution is only one issue. Using the tragic case of elevated lead levels in the water in Flint, Michigan, Ali explained how the health effects of pollution and infrastructure neglect can haunt low-income people of color for decades.
“We talk about Flint, but we’ve got that issue in East Chicago,” Ali began, referring to lead contamination in the heavily black/Latinx area. “And there are issues with lead all across in the country. Not only the neurological issues, but the [toxic effects] make it make difficult in school, which translates into making it more difficult for you to get a job and you may make some other decisions...that may not be the best choices, that if you were never impacted by lead, you would never make.”
Environmental justice’s goal is to implement a layered, multilateral perspective when creating new policies and regulation. For example, the Office of Environmental Justice’s grant program installed solar panels to power homes for low-income families in Colorado. It funded clean up projects in Montana, refurbishing contaminated sites and making them viable small businesses. Ali says for every $1 spent on clean up projects, $16 of economic growth is leveraged.
Janet McCabe, the former former head of the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, and one of the architects of the Clean Power Plan told Gizmodo that there’s “no question” that communities of color bear most of the burden of environmental pollution. McCabe explained that, in addition to guiding policies, the OEJ also took the lead in making sure vulnerable communities were informed about environmental policy decisions. The OEJ hired translators during public hearings, and footed the bill for late night hearings for those who worked during the day.
Unchecked deregulation cripples both the health and wealth of frontline communities. At its best, OEJ grants not only provide obvious health benefits, but reverse stymied economic growth by connecting poor communities with economic opportunities. Instead, Pruitt seems invested in deregulation at all costs. As Oklahoma Attorney General, Pruitt routinely dropped lawsuits against the poultry industry and, as was done with the OEJ, zeroed out the budget for environmental enforcement in the attorney general’s office. Pruitt, both in name and in impact, is trying to replace Environmental Justice with nothing. Again.
Although the budget that eventually gets approved by Congress in mid-April is likely to differ considerably from the draft released by the White House several weeks back, the new administration has made it clear time and again that protecting the environment, and actually helping poor, disadvantaged communities by taking advantage of the economic opportunities afforded by clean energy, are pretty low priorities. For Ali’s part, he’s joining the Hip Hop Caucus, a nonprofit aimed at political activism for young people of color, as senior Vice President. Ali says he sees a new wave of environmental activism beginning.
“There’s a choice to be made,” Ali said. “They will have have to make the decision—are they going to be champions for these issues, or, when we look back through history, are they going to be the ones who placed these communities at a distinct disadvantage and played a role in additional public health burdens?”