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White House Proposes Rule Change Making it Easier to Pollute Black Neighborhoods

Critics blasted the Trump administration this week for cutting the feet out from under Black residents looking to protect their neighborhoods from poison and environmental damage.

President Donald Trump announced his plan to  stymie elements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires government agencies to conduct reviews and accept public input on the environmental impact of projects prior to approval.

Before federal or local government representatives can begin construction related to certain projects, from highways to infrastructure for hog farms, the law requires members of the community and environmental and health groups to contribute public feedback. What Trump is doing, however, guts that requirement.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) called the attack on NEPA an attempt to silence community stakeholders, many of whom have faced decades of pollution from chemical plants, highways, and oil pipelines in or near their neighborhoods.

“This is a clear attempt to silence and sideline people to make it easier for industry to pollute our communities. We will not let it stand,” said former EPA administrator and NRDC President Gina McCarthy. “People have a right to weigh in before a highway project tears up their neighborhood or a pipeline goes through their backyard. Steamrolling their concerns will mean more polluted air, more contaminated water, more health threats, and more environmental destruction.”

Trump specifically undercuts the agency by reducing the types of projects that require community input. It also cuts environmental review deadlines to between one and two years, according to the New York Times. Additionally, the new rules jettison agencies’ requirement to consider certain long term, “cumulative” or indirect effects a project might have on the environment. The creation of a new pipeline would only require the agency to analyze the pipe’s direct impact on things such as local water quality, for example, and other “reasonably foreseeable” effects. They would not have to consider the pipe’s lasting contribution to planet-heating fossil fuel emissions and global warming.

Lisa Ramsden, senior climate campaigner for Greenpeace USA pointed out how environmental problems impact minorities over white communities, and described the president’s decision as a direct attack upon Black people.

“In the middle of a pandemic that has disproportionately killed Black, brown and indigenous people in this country, our government should be doing everything it can to protect public health. Communities of color are already over-exposed to toxic pollution on the job, in their homes, and at school, putting them at greater risk of dying from COVID-19,” said Ramsden. “But the Trump administration has been more than willing to let Black and Brown people die while they put their pro-polluter agenda into overdrive.”

Ramsden actually has a point. It turns out that the U.S. has been making a habit of mixing poor and minority neighborhoods with pollution zones for decades. The problem begins with the fact that U.S. populations are still largely segregated by both race and wealth and that minority communities in the U.S. are generally more impoverished than white neighborhoods. Mississippi’s own capital city of Jackson is an excellent example of this. Consider the racial dot map below depicting the demographic breakdown of city neighborhoods according the 2010 Census. Make note of the sharp split between Black and white communities, which are represented by green and blue dots, respectively.

Now compare the map above to the Census map below depicting income levels, with lighter areas earning less revenue than darker areas.

It is no coincidence that the Black population in Jackson, Miss. also occupies the same demographic bloc containing the lowest income. Thanks to wealth-based segregation— and the premeditated U.S. tradition of keeping Black people poor—there exists a clean split between many Black and white neighborhoods. This economic and race-based segregation make it easier for polluters to install dangerous or toxic facilities in Black neighborhoods, because low-income neighborhoods don’t have the resources to fight.

Consider the Jack Watson coal plant in southern Mississippi. Until recently, the plant was one of the nation’s most notorious emitters of airborne mercury and toxins. Its owners only recently converted the energy plant to a less-toxic natural gas-burning facility at the demand of the Sierra Club and a couple of judges. Prior to that, however, The NAACP had ranked the Jack Watson power generator a “D-” among the nation’s most dangerous coal-fired U.S. plants. The two Census-based maps below represent the population around the Jacks Watson plant. The top map breaks down the population by race; the second by wealth. Both maps, when compared, reveal a mixed or all-Black neighborhood comprising the brunt of Jack Watson’s closest neighbors—but also some of its poorest.

The staggering line of financial demarcation surrounding dangerous facilities and their deliberate “Blackness” is one of the reasons minorities are generally more exposed to pollution than majority-white populations, according to the National Equity Atlas—designed by research institutes PolicyLink and the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity.

National Equity Atlas reveals that neighborhoods with high concentrations of low-income families and people of color are more likely “to be exposed to environmental hazards, putting them at higher risk for chronic diseases and premature death.” A study at the Census maps above suggests one of the many factors explaining why.

This has plenty to do with the powerlessness of poor communities. Keeping dangerous things like hog farms, landfills and cancer factories out of your backyard often comes down to how loud you can shout at local politicians. But shouting at local politicians requires the spare time to dedicate to wailing at council or county supervisor meetings. That brand of spare time doesn’t come easy to low-income residents who spend their evenings working to keep food on the table. Battling new polluting construction also sometimes requires labor-intensive community organizing and pricey neighborhood advocates to lobby local legislators against dangerous proposals.

Perhaps, not surprisingly, Black communities are nearly three times more likely than Whites to die or be hospitalized from pollution-related respiratory diseases such as asthma, which was enough of an issue for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to hold hearings on it.

On top of these staggering difficulties, poor and minority citizens now get their previously-allotted protest time against dangerous projects cut to one or two years, and—because of recent White House decisions—they may not get a say at all.


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