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With Environmental Rollbacks, Communities of Color Continue to Bear Disproportionate Pollution Burden

"Environmental justice is our cry of defiance against the onslaught of oppressive toxins and toxic oppressions that threaten to submerge our homes."

Artwork created by Ricardo Levins Morales, 2006 — you can support the artist here.

June­teenth is the most pop­u­lar annu­al cel­e­bra­tion of eman­ci­pa­tion from slav­ery in the Unit­ed States. June­teenth doesn’t mark the sign­ing of the 1863 Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion, which tech­ni­cal­ly freed slaves in the south, nor the sur­ren­der of the Con­fed­er­ate army in April 1865, nor does it com­mem­o­rate rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the Constitution’s Thir­teenth Amend­ment that abol­ished slav­ery. Instead, it marks the day when news of eman­ci­pa­tion final­ly reached 250,000 slaves in Galve­ston, Texas, part of the for­mer Con­fed­er­a­cy, on June 191865.

In many ways, June­teenth rep­re­sents how jus­tice in the Unit­ed States has repeat­ed­ly been delayed for black peo­ple, and access to a healthy, safe envi­ron­ment is no excep­tion. This his­to­ry makes the cur­rent administration’s repeat­ed, unlaw­ful attempts to weak­en our nation’s bedrock envi­ron­men­tal laws and undo impor­tant progress to ensure clean air, water and a healthy envi­ron­ment across the coun­try all the more trou­bling. Roll­backs of life­sav­ing checks on some of the nation’s biggest pol­luters — coal pow­er plants and cars — increase the already-dis­pro­por­tion­ate envi­ron­men­tal bur­den on black communities. 

In the Unit­ed States, black peo­ple are 54 per­cent more like­ly to be exposed to air pol­lu­tion in the form of fine par­tic­u­lates (PM2.5) com­pared to the over­all pop­u­la­tion. Expo­sure to PM2.5 is asso­ci­at­ed with lung dis­ease, heart dis­ease and pre­ma­ture death. African Amer­i­cans are near­ly three times more like­ly to die from asth­ma — also linked to poor air qual­i­ty — than whites.

map of proportional burden for nonwhite populations in Pm 2.5 emissions

Figure: Map of Proportional Burdens for Nonwhite Populations in PM2.5 Emissions
In all but four states (MD, NM, ND, and WV, as well as Washington, DC), people of color have greater PM2.5 exposure compared to white people. In some states, like Indiana and Alabama, people of color are exposed to at least twice as much PM2.5 pollution. Mikati et. al, supplemental materials.

His­tor­i­cal racism and eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty are major fac­tors behind these dis­par­i­ties, as pol­lut­ing facil­i­ties and areas with heavy traf­fic are gen­er­al­ly locat­ed near com­mu­ni­ties of color.

Envi­ron­men­tal racism — the dis­pro­por­tion­ate impact of envi­ron­men­tal haz­ards on peo­ple of col­or — doesn’t stop at air qual­i­ty. Racial minori­ties are more like­ly to live near tox­ic sites and land­fills, drink unhealthy water and have ele­vat­ed lev­els of lead in their blood. These dis­par­i­ties can be addressed by imple­ment­ing and enforc­ing envi­ron­men­tal laws and reg­u­la­tions in a man­ner that equal­ly pro­tects every­one — a con­cept called envi­ron­men­tal justice.”

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, many fed­er­al reg­u­la­tions that could make our envi­ron­ments health­i­er are being stalled or rolled back. The Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (“EPA”) announced that it has final­ized its rule rolling back pow­er plant emis­sion stan­dards today, and has pre­vi­ous­ly sig­naled its inten­tion of final­iz­ing fuel effi­cien­cy stan­dards lat­er this sum­mer. By the EPA’s own cal­cu­la­tions, repeal­ing and replac­ing the Oba­ma-era stan­dards on coal fired pow­er plants (called the Clean Pow­er Plan”) could lead to as many as 1,400 pre­ma­ture deaths annu­al­ly by 2030 from PM2.5 pol­lu­tion, up to 15,000 new cas­es of upper res­pi­ra­to­ry prob­lems and tens of thou­sands of missed school days. The roll­back of fuel effi­cien­cy stan­dards would lead to 300 pre­ma­ture deaths annu­al­ly by mid-cen­tu­ry. The bur­den of this pol­lu­tion will dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly fall upon com­mu­ni­ties of color.

To make mat­ters worse, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has tak­en addi­tion­al steps to reverse impor­tant progress in ensur­ing clean air and clean water for all. The first White House bud­get pro­posed elim­i­nat­ing the EPA’s Office of Envi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice, and the EPA has failed to address com­mu­ni­ty con­cerns over land­fill and tox­ic waste devel­op­ment in minor­i­ty communities.

To address inac­tion and back­track­ing on envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions at the fed­er­al lev­el, many envi­ron­men­tal groups, com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers, cities and states have stepped up. At the state lev­el, attor­neys gen­er­al have been stand­ing up for envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice to ensure that every­one can live, learn, work and play in an envi­ron­ment that is healthy and safe. On the reg­u­la­to­ry side, states are off­set­ting fed­er­al roll­backs — Cal­i­for­nia and 13 oth­er states have pledged to fight for stricter fuel effi­cien­cy stan­dards and less air pol­lu­tion in their states. States have also opposed near­ly every envi­ron­men­tal roll­back from the cur­rent admin­is­tra­tion, includ­ing attempt­ed roll­backs of nation­al water pro­tec­tions, emis­sion stan­dards for land­fills and asbestos reporting.

Attor­neys gen­er­al in New Jer­sey and Cal­i­for­nia are embrac­ing action by estab­lish­ing envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice divi­sions with­in their offices and tar­get­ing pol­luters in minor­i­ty and low-income com­mu­ni­ties. Even with­out estab­lished envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice offices, pro­tect­ing tra­di­tion­al­ly over­looked com­mu­ni­ties is at the core of many attor­ney gen­er­al actions. In New York, for exam­ple, Attor­ney Gen­er­al Leti­tia James secured set­tle­ment funds from Clean Air Act vio­la­tions to fund a fleet of all-elec­tric, zero-emis­sion deliv­ery trucks in New York City. Because low-income com­mu­ni­ties and com­mu­ni­ties of col­or have high truck and traf­fic vol­ume, reduc­ing pol­lu­tion from diesel trucks can have an espe­cial­ly large impact in these communities.

Attor­neys gen­er­al have also advo­cat­ed for equal access to the country’s trea­sured nat­ur­al resources. When the Nation­al Park Ser­vice sought to increase park entrance fees in 2017, attor­neys gen­er­al argued against the increase, stat­ing that increased fees would reduce access to Nation­al Parks for groups that are already under­rep­re­sent­ed in nation­al park usage, includ­ing peo­ple with low incomes and com­mu­ni­ties of col­or. In the end, instead of increas­ing by $45, park fees only increased by $5.

The Unit­ed States has a long his­to­ry of over­look­ing com­mu­ni­ties of col­or, and envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice prob­lems can­not be solved by states alone. There remains a sig­nif­i­cant amount of work to be done, and state attor­neys gen­er­al will con­tin­ue to be part of the fight for envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice until all peo­ple enjoy access to a safe, healthy environment.