Environmental Justice Is Not Un-American

Rebecca Bratspies

Sept. 21, 2020

Recently, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler spoke to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the EPA's founding. He used the opportunity to reiterate the agency's commitment to its “straightforward” mission to “protect human health and the environment.” He also emphasized that the agency’s mission meant “ensuring that all Americans – regardless of their zip code – have clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and clean land to live, work, and play upon.”

Why did Wheeler refer to zip code? Because decades of research have documented that pollution, and its adverse health effects, are not spread equally across the country. Instead, polluting industry tends to be concentrated in certain zip codes that, due to a history of racist redlining and housing discrimination, are predominantly the home of Black and Brown Americans.

The groundbreaking 1987 study Toxic Waste and Race in the United States first documented that race is the most significant predictor of living near a toxic facility. Over the ensuing three decades, evidence for this connection between America’s racial geography and pollution has grown even stronger. Indeed, EPA’s own researchers recently documented that race, rather than poverty is the strongest predictor for pollution exposure.

By affirming EPAs duty to ensure a clean and healthy environment regardless of zip code, Wheeler was explicitly recognizing that achieving environmental justice is integral to EPA’s statutory mission.

Less than a year ago, in its 2019 Environmental Justice Progress Report, he was even more explicit. In reporting its progress toward environmental justice, EPA restated the agency’s commitment “to ensuring that environmental justice is integrated into EPA’s programs and activities to strengthen environmental and public health protections for low-income, minority, indigenous, and disadvantaged communities. . . .” Why? Because these communities “are more likely to live near contaminated lands or be disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards.”

Yet just last week, EPA postponed an internal speaker series on environmental justice. The reason for this postponement: the appalling suggestion, as per a recent White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) memo, that recognizing racial disparities in environmental protection is somehow "un-American."

The Constitution guarantees all Americans equal protection under the law. For a quarter century, all federal agencies have worked to identify and address “disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations in the United States.”

Race-based environmental disparities remain far too high. In communities across the country, Black and Hispanic residents breathe air polluted with higher levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) than do white residents. Black Americans are 75 percent more likely than white Americans to live in communities adjacent to sources of pollution. As a direct result of the higher pollution load they bear, Black Americans experience higher rates of pollution-related morbidity and mortality. Black children are more than twice as likely as white children to have asthma and experience disproportionately worse asthma outcomes, including higher hospitalization and death rates.

Yet like a toddler who covers their eyes and says “You can’t see me,” the Trump administration seems to be pretending these facts do not exist.

Facts are not un-American. America is old enough to have developed object permanence. We realize that covering our eyes does not make things disappear. Indeed, Wheeler himself recently emphasized that the communities dealing with the worst pollution in this country “tend to be low-income and minority.” He acknowledged that these communities “face multiple environmental problems that need solving.” Training government employees to recognize and respond to the environmental problems faced by communities of color and low-wealth families is part of fulfilling EPA’s mandate, not undermining it.

Yet here we are. Presumably to appease a president whose appeals to the nation are increasingly unhinged, EPA now pretends that environmental justice trainings are a problem rather than part of the solution. By playing along with this administration’s racist nonsense, the agency betrayed science, its mission, and the American people it purports to protect. Administrator Wheeler should be ashamed.

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