Amid nationwide protests against racist police brutality and a pandemic that’s disproportionately affecting Black people, on Thursday night, Trump signed an executive order directing federal agencies to fast track the construction of projects that will put communities of color at risk.
The move allow agencies to bypass environmental safeguards to speed up the construction of infrastructure, including oil and gas pipelines, mines, and highways. It claims those rules are “unnecessary.” But the environmental regulations that agencies can waive, such as those under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Water Act, are only unnecessary if you don’t care about the health of ecosystems and people—especially poor Black and brown people, who are disproportionately harmed by pollution.
Corporations and governments alike are more likely to build polluting infrastructure in and around poor communities of color, from highways and toxic waste dumps to pipelines and coal, oil, and gas plants. This isn’t an unhappy accident: It’s based on a long, racist history of segregation. For instance, communities that were redlined—the state-sanctioned practice of denying home loans and insurance to Black people and labelling their neighborhoods “hazardous” to real estate investors—are still more often located near polluting infrastructure that spews out toxic emissions. As a result of this and other systemic inequalities, Black people suffer the highest death rates from heart disease and are three times more likely to die from asthma than white people.
This executive order is the most recent instance of the Trump administration exploiting the pandemic to roll back environmental protections. On Thursday, it also unveiled a new rule that will limit the strength of future air pollution controls. In May, Trump signed an order directing agencies to “identify regulatory standards that may inhibit economic recovery.” And in March, the EPA announced a sweeping suspension on its enforcement of environmental laws, allowing companies to choose not to meet legal requirements on reporting air and water pollution. Perversely, the latest order is based on the same legal authority the White House uses to fast-track responses to extreme weather emergencies increasingly fueled by carbon pollution.
Trump says these rollbacks will help the nation recover from the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, but really it will just exacerbate existing inequalities and make the climate crisis worse. Those exposed to air pollution are more vulnerable to the virus. For communities of color that have dealt with a disproportionate toll, it could make the pandemic worse. And because energy infrastructure, highways, and mines all create carbon pollution, the order could also threaten the health of the entire planet.
If the Trump administration wanted to, it could help Americans get through the current economic crisis, which has also disproportionately harmed Black and brown people. Experts have laid out plans to protect workers harmed by the economic recession, providing employment for the millions of Americans who’ve lost jobs, and transition away from fossil fuels. Instead, it’s taking the opportunity to push through legislation that will help corporations.
There’s no good time for these kinds of rollbacks. But by enacting them while the nation is protesting racist inequality, it almost feels like Trump’s rubbing it in.