The new “State of the Air” report published by the American Lung Association has found that 41% of Americans live in areas with unhealthy air quality. However, the report also found that communities of color are 61% more likely to live in these areas than white communities. This is an even more dangerous problem during the pandemic. Research shows that people who are continuously exposed to poor air quality suffer from more severe COVID symptoms during and prior to the sickness. BIPOC communities in the United States are also more likely to be affected by lead poisoning, water contamination, be more affected by the consequences of climate change, and are more likely to have landfills of hazardous waste sites built near them. A lack of government regulation makes these injustices even harder to dismantle.
A lot of these issues can be under the control of the EPA. However, during the Trump administration, the climate change page was removed entirely from the agency’s website. The agency altogether suspended several routine inspections of facilities that help identify and correct some of these issues due to the COVID-19 pandemic (rather than creating new practices for safer inspections). During the Biden administration, the EPA administrator, Michael Regan, has announced that the EPA will take direct steps toward environmental actions. In a directive issued to staff, Regan said they need to “infuse equity and environmental justice principles and priorities into all EPA practices, policies, and programs.”
The memo released the first week of April defines four ways the EPA plans to undertake environmental justice. First, the agency will crack down on the enforcement of environmental statutes and civil rights laws in communities suffering from high pollution levels. The EPA also plans to incorporate environmental justice actions into all of their work going forward, including working together with Tribal communities in developing regulatory development processes. The agency goes further to say that it will also take more direct action to engage with pollution-burdened communities affected by the agency’s environmental policies and decisions. In light of Biden’s Nation-to-Nation memorandum, the agency also announced they will frequently be consulting with Tribal Officials regarding agency policies that directly affect Tribal communities. Finally, the EPA also announced it will consider direct or indirect benefits for underserved, pollution-burned communities when making decisions regarding grant applications and awards.
Although this memorandum is definitely a step forward for climate justice in the United States, I still have concerns. The plan itself is very vague. There are no definitive steps on how the EPA will support communities who already disproportionately suffer due to climate change. All four points essentially say that the agency will do more to engage and consult with these communities to understand how current and future regulations and policies affect them. I would have liked to see more defined commitments like a grant application measure. The agency could work with nonprofits to find relief solutions for communities facing current issues rather than just speaking with them on policy-making.
Another issue is the back-and-forth we’ve seen from the EPA in the last decade, depending on what political party is currently in power. Environmental justice is not political. People’s lives and health shouldn’t be a debate. The EPA needs to have policies in place that will protect the people of the United States from climate disasters regardless of everything else that is going on in the country. Regardless if the White House Officials think that climate change is a hoax or not, the effects of polluted air is real, the reality of living near a toxic waste site is real, the everyday suffering of communities without access to clean water is real, regardless who or what caused it.
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Photo by Benjamin Voros on Unsplash