By Amy Patronella and Saharra Griffin, Center for American Progress
President Donald Trump has claimed that from his first day in office, his administration “has made it a top priority to ensure that America has among the very cleanest air and cleanest water on the planet.” In reality, it has done the exact opposite—deliberately dismantling the United States’ existing framework of environmental protections that safeguard the country’s water, air, and public health.
Due to a history of systemic racism and segregation, low-income communities and people of color have been burdened with higher levels of pollution in their backyards. These groups are also disproportionately vulnerable to the increasingly devastating weather events occurring as a result of unchecked climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Historic exclusion from political decision-making has only exacerbated this reality, further impeding these communities’ ability to prepare for and respond to burgeoning climate risks.
This column lists examples of the Trump administration’s notable anti-environmental actions in three areas: weakening air and water protections; threatening community health and safety; and his administration’s refusal to act on climate change. It also uses stories of communities across the country who have been deeply affected by these environmental policies to illustrate the disproportionate harm to specific communities of color. These groups are facing the most severe repercussions of the Trump administration’s continued environmental rollbacks.
1. Weakening protections for air and water
Removed protections for one-third of U.S. drinking water sources: The Trump administration has gutted protections for clean water by weakening the Clean Water Act, finalizing a so-called dirty water rule, and delaying action to protect against toxic chemicals in drinking water. Additionally, under Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), communities of color in particular are seeing slow and inadequate enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Weakened coal ash restrictions: The Trump administration eased health and environmental regulations surrounding the disposal of coal ash that ensure it does not leak into groundwater sources. Communities of color are disproportionately likely to live near coal ash dumping sites, which are associated with cancer, low birth weight, and premature death.
Proposed loosening restrictions on toxic mercury pollution: The Trump administration proposed rolling back the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards, which, since they were announced in 2011, have put limits on mercury emissions from coal- and oil-fired power plants. High levels of mercury pose significant health risks to pregnant women and their children. African Americans are disproportionately affected by this rule change, as this community is 75 percent more likely to live in close proximity to an oil or gas facility than people of other races.
Gutted the Clean Power Plan: The Trump administration repealed the Clean Power Plan, which was designed to reduce pollution that causes climate change and to improve public health. In addition to increasing climate impacts, the administration’s decision harms people of color, since they are more likely to live near pollution-emitting power plants—and thus are more susceptible to dangerous health problems such as asthma and cardiovascular disease. The Clean Power Plan’s Clean Energy Incentive Program, which encouraged investment in energy efficiency improvements in economically disadvantaged areas to lower household energy bills, was also repealed with the rest of plan.
Allowed increased nitrogen oxide pollution: The Trump administration lowered the standards that industrial facilities use to monitor nitrogen oxide emissions from coal power plants, thereby allowing these facilities to lower the quality and accuracy of data used to measure air quality. This rollback affects certain vulnerable communities in particular, as nearly 40 percent of those who live within 3 miles of a coal power plant are people of color.
Deregulated petroleum refineries: In 2018, the Trump administration deregulated petroleum refineries through amendments to the New Source Performance Standards and the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants—two Obama-era rulesthat were expected to lower cancer risks for more than 1.4 million people living near refineries. Across the country, 6.7 million African Americans live in counties with oil and petroleum refineries releasing toxins linked to cancer, such as benzene, and African Americans suffer from higher risks of cancer due to toxic air emissions from refineries compared with the national average risk.
Favored polluters in cost-benefit analyses: At the request of President Trump, the EPA will now consider social, economic, and energy effects when evaluating the National Ambient Air Quality Standards instead of solely focusing on health impacts, as required under the Clean Air Act. This allows the EPA to consider an energy company’s cost of compliance as a criterion when measuring air quality for pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide—a highly toxic gas that’s emitted when fossil fuels are burned at high temperatures and that can cause respiratory problems. Communities of color in the United States are exposed to 38 percent higher levels of nitrogen dioxide on average than white Americans and are more likely to live around pollutants overall.
Community spotlight on Braddock, Pennsylvania: Breathing steel’s dirty air
Ever since Andrew Carnegie opened the Edgar Thomson Steel Works plant in Braddock, Pennsylvania, in 1872, it has been an active mill site, running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Situated along the Monongahela River in the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh, Braddock meets Pennsylvania’s definition of an “environmental-justice area,” because 30 percent of its residents are people of color and 20 percent are low income.
The steel mill is Braddock’s economic epicenter, providing employment for many of the town’s 2,000 residents. But the steel it produces comes at a high cost for its residents’ health: Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, which includes Braddock and the greater Pittsburgh area, ranks in the top 2 percent of all counties in the United States for cancer risks from air pollution. In fact, 90 percent of Braddock’s residents are at risk for exposure to fine particulate matter in the air, leading to an epidemic of asthma cases among children in the region.
The plant emits pounds of environmental contaminants—particulate matter, sulfur oxides, volatile organic compounds, and carbon monoxide—each day. This cocktail of pollutants is responsible for a range of health impacts in affected people, from worsened respiratory issues and a reduced ability to transport oxygen to critical organs to kidney and liver damage.
Many residents are aware of the health risks of living and working in Braddock. In an interview with The Atlantic, Toby Buba, a longtime resident and filmmaker in Braddock, said, “My dad put a notice down at the employment office not to hire me because he never wanted us to work at the mill, me or my brother.”
The Trump administration’s pollution rollbacks have only exacerbated the air quality issues for residents in Braddock and across the United States. In 2018, the EPA released a memo to weaken a Clinton-era rule regulating soot and smog emissions from major industrial polluters. This means that once a designated “major source” cuts its pollution down to a certain standard, the source would be reclassified as an “area source”—and thus would be subject to less stringent reviews or standards. This incentivizes a one-time effort to reduce pollution to shed oversight and then return to previous levels of pollution. Additionally, the new memo vests regulatory powers in the state, which often preclude citizens from suing companies for violating air quality permits.
Ultimately, the Trump administration’s new directive is a favor to industry and will worsen the already dire public health crises for Braddock and other manufacturing towns.
2. Threatening community health and safety
Undid climate and community protections under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA): At the beginning of the year, the Trump administration announced its plans to undermine NEPA—a 50-year-old bedrock law that requires environmental review and public input for federal projects, including for roads and bridges; oil and gas development; and pipeline construction. The proposed changes to the rule include limiting the role of public comment, removing the requirement to consider the cumulative effects of a project, and allowing conflicts of interest. NEPA has been critical in providing communities with a voice in projects that might affect them, and now, the Trump administration hopes to change that by taking away power from the people and placing it in the hands of corporate polluters.
Community spotlight on Mossville, Louisiana: Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley’ suffers under Trump environmental rollbacks
Established in 1790 by Jim Moss, a freed slave, Mossville, Louisiana, became one of the first homes for freed African Americans in the South after the Civil War. But today, the unincorporated town is more of a home to industrial facilities and pollution that no community wants in its backyard.
Covering 5 square miles, Mossville sits just north of the bayous of southwest Louisiana. Chemical facilities, subsidized by the Louisiana state government, moved in over time, polluting the air, water, and soil with industrial byproducts.
Residents, noticing an increase in incidences of cancer and other chronic diseases in the community, began to speak out about the environmental hazards. Thanks to vocal community leaders, in 1998, the federal government tasked its Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) with testing 28 Mossville residents’ blood for dioxins, a toxic pollutant emitted during the manufacturing of plastics. The ATDSR found dioxin in the residents’ blood to be three times higher than the U.S. average—making the Mossville dioxin rates among the highest ever recordednationally. That same year, a chemical company, since absorbed by South African energy and chemical giant Sasol, bought out more than 200 Mossville homeowners after a class-action lawsuit accused the corporation of polluting the town’s soil with carcinogens.
Now, Mossville is surrounded by more than 14 chemical plants—the most recent of which is a $13 billion petrochemical plant owned and operated by Sasol. The plant is the largest of its kind in the Western Hemisphere and is expected to produce the highest level of greenhouse gases of any facility in Louisiana, in addition to producing other known pollutants. Construction for the plant was only completed in March 2019, but Sasol has already announced a potential expansion.
Sasol claims that the new facility, which was approved by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, will not cause environmental harm. But given its proximity to homes, Sasol offered Mossville residents a buyout of $100,000 plus 60 percent of the home values.
While many residents have accepted the buyout in an attempt to start anew in a nonpolluted community, some have stayed, financially and socially unable or unwilling to leave their community behind. Retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, a Louisiana native and environmental justice advocate, said in a 2014 interview with Mother Jones, “These people are not interested in moving. … This is their ancestral home. These are descendants of slaves that moved here when they weren’t wanted in any other parts of the community.”
One of the proposed changes to NEPA axes the “cumulative impact” analysis requirement of the law. This means, among other things, that agencies may separately review major federal actions—such as permitting a new refinery or manufacturing plant—without consideration for preexisting pollution or how a project would pollute over time. This narrow-sighted analysis is detrimental to communities of color with a legacy of pollution, such as Mossville, and could further exclude community members from development decisions.
Neglected cleanup efforts in toxic Superfund sites: The Trump administration recently proposed to slash funding for toxic Superfund cleanup by 10 percent, despite the current backlog of sites being the worst in 15 years. Moreover, research suggests that Superfund sites are more likely to be located in nonwhite communities. Beyond limiting the resources available for addressing Superfund sites, Trump’s EPA is plagued with conflicts of interests surrounding the cleanup of these sites. For example, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler is a former chemical lobbyist who is now overseeing decisions regarding a Superfund site in New York and New Jersey—for which two of his past clients are responsible.
Declined to ban toxic pesticides: The Trump administration rejected a ban on chlorpyrifos—a pesticide that is linked to brain damage in children—which EPA scientists recommended after studying the chemical. The administration’s refusal to ban this product will negatively affect agricultural workers, the majority of which are Hispanic or Latinx.
Slashed the capacity of the EPA: The Trump administration is continuing to chip away at the EPA’s funding, putting communities with legacies of pollution at risk. Earlier this month, the White House released its proposed budget for the 2021 fiscal year, cutting $2.4 billion, or 26 percent, of the EPA’s total operating budget. The budget also decreases the EPA workforce by 11 percent, bringing staffing levels to the lowest since 1985. The EPA is tasked with regulating industrial polluters, which a growing body of evidence suggests are more likely to be located in neighborhoods of color. As the EPA’s budget and workforce shrinks under President Trump, so does the agency’s capacity for enforcing environmental and public health protections.
Proposed gutting the EPA Office of Environmental Justice: The EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice works to protect overburdened communities from environmental and health hazards such as toxic waste and air pollution. The Trump administration attempted to eliminate the entire office in its fiscal year 2018 proposed spending bill, jeopardizing the health and safety of countless Americans. While the office has remained funded due to congressional pushback, the administration again attempted to slash the program and management budget in both fiscal years 2019 and 2020. Additionally, the recently released fiscal year 2021 proposed budget includes a 71 percent decrease in funding for the Environmental Justice Office.
Community spotlight on Spartanburg, South Carolina: Community revitalization supported by EPA funding
More than 20 years ago, Harold Mitchell Jr., a longtime Spartanburg, South Carolina, resident, began noticing that many of his friends and family members were developing cancer or respiratory issues, and he suspected that exposure to high levels of toxins and environmental pollutants was to blame: “Nobody [in Spartanburg] died from natural causes. … It was either lung cancer or rare respiratory diseases,” Mitchell told Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) in a 2019 conversation.
Located in the northern part of South Carolina, Spartanburg was home to a textile mill in the early 1900s. However, when that industry receded in the 1950s, Spartanburg was left with a 30-acre dumpsite as well as a smaller site leaking toxins into the water and air—with the Arkwright and Forest Park neighborhoods bearing the brunt of the pollution. The two communities, home to roughly 5,000 residents, are predominantly African American, with 25 percent of the population living in poverty and 10 percent unemployed.
Mitchell finally decided to take action to address the environmental hazards in his hometown in 1997. After he raised his concerns, an EPA investigation connected Spartanburg’s legacy of pollution to the city’s current public health crisis.
Following the EPA’s investigation, Mitchell founded a nonprofit called ReGenesislater that same year to address environmental contaminants stemming from the six brownfields, two waste sites, and a chemical plant located in Arkwright and Forest Park. Backed by a $20,000 environmental justice grant from the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, ReGenesis launched a 17-year development project, ultimately turning the initial grant into a combined $250 million of public and private funds to reinvest in the community.
ReGenesis not only led the cleanup of Superfund sites and brownfields in Arkwright and Forest Park but also created 500 affordable housing units and a number of job training programs as well as invested in health and community centers.
While Harold Mitchell Jr. and other environmental justice advocates hope to make Spartanburg a case study in revitalizing communities with legacies of pollution, the budget for grants like the type Spartanburg received—from the Office of Environmental Justice—has been dramatically slashed: A 2019 analysis of Trump’s EPA found that Office of Environmental Justice grants have decreased by “70 percent from the Obama administration and 79 percent from the Bush administration.” This cut comes even as the EPA released a study finding that Black people are on average exposed to roughly 1 1/2 times more particulate matter than white people.
Spartanburg’s renewal is remarkable, but the Trump administration’s policies and funding decisions will impede reinvestment and environmental justice projects in similar communities.
3. Refusing to take action on climate change
Rolled back regulations and continued inaction on climate change: The Trump administration has actively worked against climate action at every turn during his presidency, resulting in increased greenhouse gas emissions and, in turn, increased extreme weather, to the tune of $45 billion of damages in 2019 alone. Trump’s efforts to stop climate action at all costs—including withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, gutting and replacing the Clean Power Plan, and proposing to roll back the clean car standards—mean that these climate impacts are only going to get worse, with the burden placed disproportionately on communities of color; these groups find themselves in worse financial situations after natural disasters such as flooding. Worse yet, the Trump administration has reversed efforts requiring infrastructure projects to be designed to survive the future consequences of climate change.
Impeded disaster relief: The Trump administration diverted Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to increase immigration enforcement, less than a week after Hurricane Dorian approached the Southern coast. Funding totaling $115 million from FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund will now be directed toward U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to help supply new detention facility beds. The move leaves communities of color at greater risk for natural disasters and less able to recover after a disaster. Due to a variety of factors, such as a history of housing discrimination and disinvestment in infrastructure, communities of color are often the most vulnerable to flooding, and those who live near petrochemical plants or Superfund Sites are exposed to toxins that can overflow during a storm.
Community spotlight on Kinston, North Carolina: Disaster recovery in a changing climate
In 2016, when Hurricane Matthew struck Kinston, North Carolina, then-16-year-old Chris Suggs mobilized his nonprofit, Kinston Teens, to respond to the floods that were sweeping across the town—engulfing businesses, apartment complexes, and churches. It took several weeks for the waters to recede in areas, and some parts of the town were unable to access food for 25 days in the wake of the flood. Just two years later, in 2018, Hurricane Florence led to historic flooding, launching Kinston again into disaster recovery mode. And in 2019, when North Carolina endured yet another Category 5 hurricane, the storm led to power outages and widespread destruction of local infrastructure.
Kinston, a predominantly African American town, has a long history of flooding. Located on the banks of the Neuse River in eastern North Carolina, Kinston was once a robust textile and tobacco town. But after industry left, and two hurricanes hit Kinston in the 1990s, divestment followed. With damaged homes and businesses and decreasing community morale, the town lost 16 percent of its population from 1990 to 2010.
As Hurricane Matthew was nearing North Carolina almost four years ago, it became clear that federal disaster preparedness was lacking. Suggs responded by organizing his newly formed nonprofit to address the community needs. Kinston Teens worked with local officials leading up the storm to tell residents about evacuation protocols and even sometimes physically helped with evacuation. Suggs and volunteers also collected supplies from businesses and coordinated the distribution to residents.
While Suggs’ recovery response work made a difference to Kinston residents, he recognizes that it’s a short-term solution to a long-term problem—one that is only getting worse in a rapidly changing climate: “For me, the saddest thing about these recurring natural disasters that are exacerbated by climate change, is that the communities that are the most affected–like mine–are often the communities that have ALREADY been hit the hardest by all of society’s other problems,” Suggs said in his testimony to the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.
Without improvements and increased funding geared toward predisaster planning and post-disaster recovery—coupled with strong climate action—communities of color will continue to suffer the worst impacts of disasters.
Since 2016, the Trump administration has rolled back 95 environmental rules and regulations at the expense of the environment and the public health of Americans. While this administration continues to block climate action, the climate crisis is threatening the air, water, public health, and well-being of U.S. communities. Furthermore, the deregulation of polluting industries and lack of action on climate change exacerbates existing economic and racial inequality.
In the midst of this systemic elimination of federal protections and willful inaction on climate, the science is resoundingly clear: We must move to a 100 percent clean energy future with equity at the forefront. The Equitable and Just National Climate Platform, co-authored by the Center for American Progress, 12 environmental justice groups, and seven national environmental organizations, recognizes the importance of justice and equity as “central components of our climate agenda.” Additionally, it calls for “healthy climate and air quality for all” as well as “[s]afe, healthy communities and infrastructure.”
All communities, particularly communities of color, can no longer afford the Trump administration’s attacks on public health and the environment—it is past time to move toward climate action that is equitable and just and that centers communities who have suffered the most.