Will a weakened EPA set environmental justice back?

environmental justice 12 12A gathering in 2013 to protest the health problems, such as respiratory illnesses and cancer, from an incinerator located in Baltimore. Unitedworkers/flickr, CC BY

The incoming EPA will likely lean toward less oversight over state public health programs – and lax enforcement is one of the causes behind the Flint water crisis.

President-elect Donald Trump on Dec. 7 nominated Scott Pruitt to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt has close ties with the fossil fuel industry and has been an ardent critic of the agency. As attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt has led the legal fight against many of the EPA’s signature regulations during the Obama administration, including the Clean Power Plan, the Waters of the United States rule and standards on toxic and interstate air pollution.

Given Pruitt’s hostility to EPA policy and President-elect Trump’s stated positions on climate change, energy and regulation in general, the direction of federal environmental policy is about to shift abruptly.

This change in policy also has potentially enormous ramifications for the EPA’s efforts to promote environmental justice. Over the past year, the lead contamination of Flint, Michigan’s public water supply and the protests in North Dakota over the Dakota Access oil pipeline have provided stark reminders that environmental burdens are often borne disproportionately by low-income and minority communities.

During the Obama administration, the EPA has made achieving environmental justice a key priority. Earlier this fall, the agency released its long-term strategy, EJ 2020 Action Agenda, to better deliver on its historical promises of reducing disparities in environmental protection. Although the agency still has much to accomplish, recent reforms, for example, to better incorporate equity into regulatory decision-making and to improve agency implementation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, are clear steps in the right direction.

With the EPA under new leadership, however, the durability of these reforms are now in doubt.

Particularly vulnerable

In the month since the presidential election, considerable attention has been given to what environmental policy might look like in the Trump administration. For good reason, much of the emphasis has been on climate change, given President-elect Trump’s own climate denial and the appointment of Myron Ebell, a long-time critic of the EPA, to direct the agency’s transition team.

The EPA’s portfolio, of course, is much broader than climate change. With some recent regulatory initiatives, such as the Clean Power Plan, there are significant limits on what can be easily undone. However, little can prevent the new administration from changing or even eliminating discretionary, voluntary EPA initiatives.

This is why recent environmental justice efforts are at such risk. During the Obama administration, the EPA has invested significant time and effort to develop new policies, tools and strategies to address income- and race-based disparities in environmental protection. Yet, because nearly all of these efforts have been pursued without the force of law or regulation, they can be easily (and quietly) reversed.

Redirected or ignored

There are many ways in which the new leadership at the EPA can undermine federal environmental justice policies and programs.

First, President Trump could revoke President Clinton’s 1994 executive order on environmental justice. Executive Order 12898 requires federal agencies to make “achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations.”

Until recently, implementation of Executive Order 12898 has been weak and inconsistent, as I wrote about in “Failed Promises: Evaluating the Federal Government’s Response to Environmental Justice.” But, it remains the core statement of federal policy, and it has important symbolic value for environmental justice advocates.

Short of revocation, the EPA administrator could reinterpret the executive order to make it virtually meaningless. This occurred under the leadership of former EPA administrators Christie Todd Whitman and Stephen Johnson during the George W. Bush administration, when the EPA essentially redefined environmental justice to diminish its focus on poor and minority communities. The consequence of this action was to signal to EPA staff, and the states that help implement federal programs, that promoting environmental justice was not an agency priority.

Second, the Trump EPA could set aside the agency’s EJ 2020 Action Agenda, either formally or simply by ignoring it. The EPA is under no legal requirement to pursue the items enumerated in this agenda. Similarly, the new administrator and politically appointed program heads could instruct staff to set aside procedures set forth in new policy guidance. This guidance, developed as part of the EPA’s Plan EJ 2014 program, created procedures to consider environmental justice routinely throughout agency decisions, in areas ranging from permitting to rulemaking to enforcement. But, because these procedures are discretionary, they can be formally replaced, or just neglected.

What is at stake?

To the extent that the Trump EPA either relaxes the stringency of current regulations and/or elects not to pursue new protections, the effects could fall disproportionately on historically vulnerable communities.

Because major sources of pollution are more likely to be located in poor and minority communities, efforts to reduce pollution tend to positively affect people living in these areas. As a result, recent EPA efforts to tighten air quality standards, for example, on toxic emissions from oil refineries, specifically benefit many low-income and minority communities.

If the EPA, most likely with a drastically reduced budget, pulls back from enforcing existing pollution control programs, this may create further inequities in environmental burdens. More “business-friendly” permitting and lax compliance monitoring are relatively discreet ways to lower the regulatory burden facing power plants, factories and other major sources of pollution.

Further, most of the day-to-day implementation of major federal pollution control statutes is managed by state agencies. And under the leadership of Scott Pruitt, the EPA is likely to look for opportunities to hand off additional responsibilities to state governments.

State efforts are supposed to be overseen by EPA’s ten regional offices. But if these offices do not perform robust oversight, states are left to administer these programs as they see fit. In some states, this could exacerbate class- and race-based disparities in regulatory enforcement, as I have found already to exist in research with Chris Reenock on the Clean Air Act, and in other research on the Clean Water Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Indeed, lack of federal oversight by EPA’s Region 5 office was a significant contributing factor to the Flint crisis. If oversight becomes even less rigorous, the potential for Flint-like situations to emerge elsewhere in the country only increases.

Any reason for optimism?

Perhaps, these worst-case scenarios will not come to pass. Career staff could push back against a new leadership team hostile to its ideals. In some respects, agency personnel responded this way to the anti-regulatory, budget-minimizing tenure of Ann Gorsuch, the first EPA administrator appointed by President Reagan.

And, perhaps, President-elect Trump will surprise. A consistent policy priority of the incoming administration has been rebuilding the country through new infrastructure. If such an infrastructure program includes major investments in wastewater treatment, for example, this may enhance environmental quality for some poor and minority communities.

Details of this and other priorities have yet to emerge, however. And, the early signs from the campaign trail and now the appointment of Scott Pruitt to head the agency portend an EPA that is likely to deprioritize, if not attempt to dismantle, important environmental protection measures. For the people living in already overburdened communities, the potential risks of this type of retrenchment are real and personal.

This article originally appeared on The Conversation

enafarzh-CNzh-TWdanltlfifrdeiwhihuiditjakomsnofaplptruesswsvthtrukurvi

follow InnerSelf on

facebook icontwitter iconyoutube iconinstagram iconpintrest iconrss icon

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

LATEST VIDEOS

The Great Climate Migration Has Begun
The Great Climate Migration Has Begun
by Super User
The climate crisis is forcing thousands around the world to flee as their homes become increasingly uninhabitable.
The Last Ice Age Tells Us Why We Need To Care About A 2℃ Change In Temperature
The Last Ice Age Tells Us Why We Need To Care About A 2℃ Change In Temperature
by Alan N Williams, et al
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that without a substantial decrease…
Earth Has Stayed Habitable For Billions Of Years – Exactly How Lucky Did We Get?
Earth Has Stayed Habitable For Billions Of Years – Exactly How Lucky Did We Get?
by Toby Tyrrell
It took evolution 3 or 4 billion years to produce Homo sapiens. If the climate had completely failed just once in that…
How Mapping The Weather 12,000 Years Ago Can Help Predict Future Climate Change
How Mapping The Weather 12,000 Years Ago Can Help Predict Future Climate Change
by Brice Rea
The end of the last ice age, around 12,000 years ago, was characterised by a final cold phase called the Younger Dryas.…
The Caspian Sea Is Set To Fall By 9 Metres Or More This Century
The Caspian Sea Is Set To Fall By 9 Metres Or More This Century
by Frank Wesselingh and Matteo Lattuada
Imagine you are on the coast, looking out to sea. In front of you lies 100 metres of barren sand that looks like a…
Venus Was Once More Earth-like, But Climate Change Made It Uninhabitable
Venus Was Once More Earth-like, But Climate Change Made It Uninhabitable
by Richard Ernst
We can learn a lot about climate change from Venus, our sister planet. Venus currently has a surface temperature of…
Five Climate Disbeliefs: A Crash Course In Climate Misinformation
The Five Climate Disbeliefs: A Crash Course In Climate Misinformation
by John Cook
This video is a crash course in climate misinformation, summarizing the key arguments used to cast doubt on the reality…
The Arctic Hasn't Been This Warm For 3 Million Years and That Means Big Changes For The Planet
The Arctic Hasn't Been This Warm For 3 Million Years and That Means Big Changes For The Planet
by Julie Brigham-Grette and Steve Petsch
Every year, sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean shrinks to a low point in mid-September. This year it measures just 1.44…

LATEST ARTICLES

green energy2 3
Four Green Hydrogen Opportunities for the Midwest
by Christian Tae
To avert a climate crisis, the Midwest, like the rest of the country, will need to fully decarbonize its economy by…
ug83qrfw
Major Barrier to Demand Response Needs to End
by John Moore, On Earth
If federal regulators do the right thing, electricity customers across the Midwest may soon be able to earn money while…
trees to plant for climate2
Plant These Trees To Improve City Life
by Mike Williams-Rice
A new study establishes live oaks and American sycamores as champions among 17 “super trees” that will help make cities…
north sea sea bed
Why We Must Understand Seabed Geology To Harness The Winds
by Natasha Barlow, Associate Professor of Quaternary Environmental Change, University of Leeds
For any country blessed with easy access to the shallow and windy North Sea, offshore wind will be key to meeting net…
3 wildfire lessons for forest towns as Dixie Fire destroys historic Greenville, California
3 wildfire lessons for forest towns as Dixie Fire destroys historic Greenville, California
by Bart Johnson, Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of Oregon
A wildfire burning in hot, dry mountain forest swept through the Gold Rush town of Greenville, California, on Aug. 4,…
China Can Meet Energy and Climate Goals Capping Coal Power
China Can Meet Energy and Climate Goals Capping Coal Power
by Alvin Lin
At the Leader’s Climate Summit in April, Xi Jinping pledged that China will “strictly control coal-fired power…
Blue water surrounded by dead white grass
Map tracks 30 years of extreme snowmelt across US
by Mikayla Mace-Arizona
A new map of extreme snowmelt events over the last 30 years clarifies the processes that drive rapid melting.
A plane drops red fire retardant on to a forest fire as firefighters parked along a road look up into the orange sky
Model predicts 10-year burst of wildfire, then gradual decline
by Hannah Hickey-U. Washington
A look at the long-term future of wildfires predicts an initial roughly decade-long burst of wildfire activity,…

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

New Attitudes - New Possibilities

InnerSelf.comClimateImpactNews.com | InnerPower.net
MightyNatural.com | WholisticPolitics.com | InnerSelf Market
Copyright ©1985 - 2021 InnerSelf Publications. All Rights Reserved.