Environmental Racism in Action: The Trump Administration’s Plans to Gut NEPA
By Derrick Z. Jackson
The Trump administration is trying mightily to gut the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the law that mandates rigorous, science-based environmental impact reviews for major infrastructure and construction projects prior to federal permitting. NEPA also reserves significant time for the public to weigh in on the impact of projects to their communities.
The loss of public input in the administration's proposed changes to NEPA has environmental justice leaders up in arms. For them, the silencing amounts to regulatory racism.
At a Feb. 25 public hearing on the proposal in Washington, DC, Hilton Kelley, a 2011 Goldman Environmental Prize winner for his work in reducing emissions from petrochemical facilities and incinerators in Port Arthur, Texas, told the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) that, with at least six explosions and plant accidents in his city over the last year, the events had become so common that children play basketball right through the noise and plumes.
"When you're talking about weakening NEPA and expediting a process, this is what happens," Kelley said, as reported by The Associated Press. "Don't lessen the regulation. Don't silence our voices."
That is precisely what the Trump administration is trying to do in rewriting the implementation guidelines for this bipartisan act signed by President Nixon and designed to allow the public input needed to ensure that "man and nature can exist in productive harmony."
Cheered on by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the nation's leading fossil fuel, chemical, construction, manufacturing, airline, trucking and farming interests, the Trump administration is trying to cut the average time for environmental reviews by more than half.
The Trump NEPA rewrite would undermine the act by allowing companies and contractors to write up their own environmental reviews. It would free builders of chemical and petrochemical factories, oil and gas pipelines, highways, port terminals and other infrastructure from accounting for the cumulative effects over time of pollution, land and wetland loss and erosion.
More Harm to Communities Already Under Siege
For communities long polluted by industry, which are disproportionately poor and of color, the Trump administration's changes promise particular devastation. Such communities already suffer higher rates of illnesses from asthma to cancer, life-altering effects such as low birth weight and cognitive child development, and daily insults to quality of life in diesel exhaust, soot penetrating into homes and contaminated yards and playgrounds.
If the administration has its way, NEPA implementation guidelines would be rewritten so that even in neighborhoods already densely packed with toxic industries, a proposed facility need only assess its own pollutants, not how much they combine and compound those of nearby facilities to worsen the overall quality of air, water and land.
To make sure residents cannot complain about such compounded damage, the Trump administration is trying to severely limit the opportunity for mothers, fathers, seniors, teens and community leaders to speak directly to the government.
The rollout of the proposed changes is a case in point. Despite the sweeping environmental risks Americans currently face, with air pollution that kills 100,000 people per year and 77 million Americans drinking tap water in violation of health regulations, the White House Council on Environmental Quality allowed only two hearings on the proposed changes to NEPA before the close of public comment period March 10, in Washington, DC, and in Denver. By way of comparison, The Washington Post reported that major issues involving NEPA usually get around nine hearings.
One community leader who did get into the Washington hearing called out the cynicism of the Trump administration for its scant public scheduling. Belinda Joyner of Northampton County, North Carolina, who has spoken out against dumping in her lower-income African American community by a wood pellet facility, industrial-scale hog farms and a part of the proposed Atlantic Coast natural gas pipeline, told the CEQ panel, "You act like you're listening, and I'm not going to say you're not. But we see the results of these hearings."
In Denver, indigenous Americans spoke out strongly against the destruction of NEPA. Seventeen-year-old Navajo Najhozhoni Rain Ben drove seven and a half hours to say to the CEQ panel, "We shouldn't be talking about this. We should be implementing plans for the future. This is not for the future. This is for profit." Musician and spoken word artist Lyla June Johnston, also Navajo, drove six hours from Santa Fe to tell the panel that the proposed changes were "a slap in the face to our democracy — a slap in the face to the integrity of our mother earth."
The Modern Need for NEPA
NEPA originally was conceived amid growing public awareness and outrage in the 1960s over river and lake pollution, pesticide poisoning of birds, highway proposals that would blast communities apart, and tanker oil spills that fouled beaches and wiped out wildlife. There is no less need for it today as climate change is already slapping America and the world in the face with more devastating storms, chronic coastal flooding, deadly heat waves, western and Alaskan wildfires and acceleration of species extinction.
There is arguably even more of an immediate need for NEPA in communities that were dumping grounds long before the concept of climate change, even before the signing of the act itself. It has been proven beyond coincidence that — similar to the tobacco industry marketing to vulnerable populations — toxic industries and builders of massive infrastructure projects target locales where they assume residents will offer the least political resistance.
That significantly explains the shameless shoehorning of petrochemical plants into Louisiana's Cancer Alley in predominantly African American areas. That explains the routing of the Keystone XL pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline through lands and over waters indigenous Americans consider sacred, and the Atlantic Bridge pipeline protested by Joyner. It explains the concentration of industry in heavily Latino and African American Southeast Chicago, which is dealing with an endless siege of dust and neurotoxic contamination from coal ash, lead, and manganese dust.
That explains the ramrodding of roads through redlined communities and why people of color drove or flew hundreds and thousands of miles for the only two hearings offered by this administration. They said the NEPA, especially in a White House that is also hollowing out the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is one of the last tools standing between them and a wholesale hostile invasion by industry.
Hope in the Courts
There is a glimmer of hope that the U.S. courts will determine that President Trump and his industrial partners are reaching too far in the rewrite of NEPA, as it relates to environmental racism. Take the Atlantic Bridge Pipeline, which is in the public eye for its upcoming Supreme Court case on whether it can transect the hallowed federal Appalachian Trail.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia recently vacated a Virginia state permit for a compressor station along the pipeline because developer Dominion Energy did not adequately assess its environmental impact on the historic African American host town of Union Hill. The town was founded by free African Americans and formerly enslaved people. The federal courts have also sent other fossil fuel projects and Trump administration oil and gas leases back to the drawing board for their inadequate consideration of environmental and climate impacts.
"Five years ago, Dominion told us that there was going to be a compressor station in Union Hill and there was nothing we could do about it," Chad Oba, president of a Union Hill coalition protesting the Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor, said in The Hill. "That's not fair, and it's not American. This is a win for a group of citizens who were committed to protecting their community and never ever gave up."
Such victories give hope that this is one rollback the Trump administration may not ultimately get away with. The assault on NEPA is so sweeping and blatant in its turning control of the environment over to industry, it is sure to receive a massive court challenge from environmental groups and environmental justice advocates. If communities like Union Hill refused to give up, there is no reason for anyone opposed to the rewriting of NEPA to throw in the towel, either. There is still time before the March 10 deadline for public comment.
Recently, Union of Concerned Scientists colleague Adrienne Hollis interviewed Mildred McClain, an environmental justice leader in Savannah, Georgia, about the importance of NEPA. McClain recalled how the act gave her community a voice against the dumping of nuclear waste and unchecked widening of the Savannah River for container ships.
"If it had not been for NEPA," McClain said, "the community would not have been a part of the process."
It's important to recognize that taking communities of color out of the process is a major goal in the administration's efforts to gut NEPA. When President Trump announced the rewrite, he was — by no small coincidence — flanked by a nearly all-white phalanx of supporters as he claimed with a straight face, "We're maintaining America's world-class standards of environmental protection. We have some of the cleanest air and cleanest water on Earth. And for our country, the air is, right now, cleaner than it's been in 40 years."
For the past two generations, NEPA has offered a powerful tool for the protection of the nation's environment. If the Trump administration succeeds in ripping it apart and turning environmental reviews over to industry, we will risk the dirtiest air and water of any developed nation on Earth, cementing this nation as a hotbed of environmental racism.
The deadline for public comments on the proposed changes to NEPA closes this Tuesday. Submit your comment today.
Reposted with permission from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
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By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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