Trump administration heightens environmental racism under cover of COVID-19

By Matthew Davis, LCV Legislative Director

We at the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) are doing our best to keep up the fight for our planet and communities, particularly low-wealth communities and communities of color, who, because of racism and environmental injustices, are both hit hardest by the coronavirus crisis and the ongoing climate crisis. With my previous work at EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, these issues hit home for me.

The Trump administration is using the coronavirus crisis as cover to roll back environmental safeguards and push forward his polluter agenda, allowing industries to pollute our air amid a respiratory public health crisis unlike any our country has seen in 100 years, or perhaps ever. And, between Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic and our environment, there are striking similarities in the ways he disregards our communities’ health by consistently ignoring science, scientists, and experts. Here are three of President Trump’s most recent and most egregious actions that undermine the air our communities will breathe during this pandemic.   

Ignoring Experts Recommendation to Strengthen Soot Standards

The EPA’s career scientists and policy experts concluded that the current particulate matter — or soot — standard did not adequately protect public health and was leading to an additional 10,000 deaths per year even without the COVID-19 crisis. For many low-wealth communities and communities of color where industries and governments have a long history of intentionally clustering power plants, industrial facilities, refineries, goods movement facilities, and other sources of soot pollution, this proposal means the deaths and respiratory illnesses will continue unabated. And it’ll mean continued high levels of soot pollution for low-wealth indigenous communities in Alaska and rural communities in Idaho that have limited options for heating their homes in the winter and see high levels of soot pollution from wood stoves and heaters.

Furthermore, emerging research has shown that slight increases in particulate matter pollution are associated with a higher risk of death from COVID-19. 

It gets worse. In states like Michigan, Maryland, and Louisiana that have collected and released demographic information about those stricken and killed by COVID-19, the Black community is disproportionately impacted, facing much higher risks than their white peers. As all of these factors compound, it is clear just how bad the Trump administration’s decisions are for the health of our country, particularly the health of communities of color.

Undermining Mercury Standards for Coal-fired Power Plants

In the same week as the administration’s soot standard failure,Trump’s EPA ignored science and experts again, finalizing a rule to undermine existing mercury standards for coal-fired power plants. Mercury standards also cut particulate matter significantly, and so undermining these standards could pour gasoline on the raging fire of the coronavirus crisis. Perhaps even more concerning and far-reaching: every future EPA rule’s cost benefit analysis would not consider health benefits that are achieved from co-pollutant reductions in concert with an individual pollutant’s regulation. 

For me, the undercutting of our mercury standards is personal —  for years, when I worked in the EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection in an administration that respected science and cared for the health of our children, I helped devise and shape the mercury standards. Power plants have already complied with the standards and levels of mercury in tuna and other fish have been declining. The mercury standards are critically important for the healthy brain development of children, particularly in low-wealth families and families of subsistence fishers who rely on fresh sport-caught fish and canned tuna – whether they live in Hmong immigrant communities in Minnesota or rural sport-fishing communities in Michigan or indigenous communities in Tennessee or Black communities in Illinois.

Increasing Emissions from Coal-fired Power Plant Waste

Sadly, yet another rule that Trump’s EPA finalized last week ignored science and experts and allows more particulate matter or soot pollution from waste coal-fired power plants, sited primarily in economically depressed, former coal producing regions in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. And this happened, largely, under the radar, receiving very little attention about the immediate effects it will have on air quality in these areas, increasing soot and other pollutants from these dirty facilities.

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For those keeping score at home, yes, that is THREE anti-science actions in a week from the Trump administration. Across the country, exposure to soot or particulate matter pollution will likely increase, which could mean more COVID-19 deaths, particularly in the low-wealth communities and communities of color facing worse air quality and other forms of institutional racism, including inadequate housing, lack of health care, job insecurity, fewer parks and green spaces, and scarcity of healthy food options. Put bluntly, the Trump administration is perpetuating environmental racism and its unconscionable health impacts on communities of color.

We are keeping an eye on what else the Trump administration might do to further put our health and environment at risk, because we know they’ll keep weakening protections that will benefit their industry cronies. Likely coming soon in the Trump administration’s appalling trend of ignoring science and health experts, we anticipate threats to our air quality that include cutting standards for methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, refusing to adequately improve air quality standards for ozone pollution, boosting oil and gas drilling on public lands, and blocking large swaths of scientific and health research from being used for developing environmental and health rules. 

LCV is continuing to engage our members, contact members of Congress to put the oversight pressure on the administration, and elevate these stories. Please take care and keep up the fight (at an appropriate distance!) – we at LCV certainly will, with your support and engagement. 

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