As I watched coverage of Harvey’s flood damage in Houston, Irma’s wreckage in the Caribbean, the devastating record monsoons in South Asia, and the fresh nightmares of Hurricane Maria, I thought back to another place: Charlottesville, where racists openly rallied to their cause – and were later defended by the president.
To explain why, let me point back to one of the least known – yet most outrageous – of the Trump administration’s early policy proposals: the proposed elimination of the Environmental Justice program at the EPA. While the division still exists for now, it has no more grants available for the current fiscal year, and its future is in limbo.
Environmental justice is the principle that people of color and poor people have historically faced greater harm from environmental damage, so special efforts should be made to prioritize their access to clean air and water. The environmental justice program gave small grants to communities struggling with these disparate pollution impacts. Its budget was small – just $6.7 million out of the prior year’s EPA budget of $8 billion, or less than one-tenth of 1 percent.
Clearly, the proposed cut wasn’t about saving money. Instead, it points to a more sinister agenda – especially when paired with other planks of the administration’s environmental platform.
Take Trump’s proposal to deregulate power plant emissions.
Air pollution is bad for everyone with lungs, but it disproportionately harms people of color and poor people, who are much likelier to live near coal-burning power plants. People living within three miles of coal-fired power plants have a per capita income 15 percent lower than the national average, and African Americans die of asthma at a 172 percent higher rate than white people. Deregulating toxic polluters is only going to worsen such egregious disparities.
Meanwhile in Alaska, Native villages are literally sinking into the sea and facing the loss of their traditional lifestyle as polar ice melts. Yet the federal government proposes eliminating the already meager assistance they receive, and won’t even name the problem they’re confronting. Absurdly, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) now refers to Arctic climate change impacts as ‘Arctic Change.’
Similar inequalities show up in the places hardest hit during this catastrophic hurricane season.
Refineries and other petrochemical facilities in Houston have been shut down in the wake of Tropical Storm Harvey. However, storm damage at the Exxon refinery in Baytown has led to leaks of toxic chemicals, while the Chevron Phillips refinery in Pasadena reported to regulators that it may release known carcinogens like benzene.
Who lives near these facilities? Of the two Census blocks immediately adjoining Exxon’s Baytown refinery, one is 87 percent non-white and 76 percent low-income, the other 59 percent non-white and 59 percent low-income.
Outside the Chevron Phillips facility, the same pattern plays out: Residents there are 83 percent non-white and 74 percent low-income.
Living near these facilities is dangerous. But for some people, even trying to get away was dangerous. In a horrifying move, the Border Patrol continued to operate checkpoints on highways being used by people evacuating from the hurricane-affected zone, so undocumented immigrants had to choose between risking their lives or getting deported.
While Texas was still reeling, the Caribbean, and then Florida, was struck by Hurricane Irma. The prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, a sovereign state that’s over 90 percent black, says that 95 percent of the structures on the island of Barbuda have been destroyed.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘The Brutal Racial Politics of Climate Change and Pollution’.
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