with Paulina Firozi

President Trump’s efforts to prop up the economy during the coronavirus pandemic may end up doing more harm than good for poor and minority neighborhoods facing chronic pollution, administration critics say.

A pair of recent administration actions in response to the viral outbreak may deprive African Americans, Native Americans and other groups of a voice in major decisions that affect air and water quality near them and end up allowing pollution to go unchecked in their communities. 

The administration's moves come against the backdrop of tens of thousands of Americans marching in the streets to protest racial inequality after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day.

“When we say, ‘I can’t breathe,’ we literally can’t breathe,” Mustafa Santiago Ali, who helped found the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice program, said during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing Tuesday, echoing some of Floyd’s final words as a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, kept his knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

To speed up economic activity, Trump wants to curtail a key way communities have a say about what gets built in their backyards.

Earlier this month, the president signed an executive order allowing major infrastructure projects to move forward without significant environmental review. 

Under the order, federal agencies are now able to waive some requirements under the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that projects such as refineries and highways be scrutinized for their potential negative impact on the environment. 

Those sorts of projects are often built in or through low-income communities, such as those in Detroit or Houston, with few resources to fend off unwanted development. Without environmental review, people who live in those communities may have no way of formally registering their discontent with federal authorities.

“NEPA has historically been a major tool for holding developers accountable,” said Robert Bullard, a scholar credited as the father of environmental justice — the idea that poor and minority communities bear the brunt of environmental hazards. 

In 1994, President Bill Clinton mandated that all agencies take into account the potential disproportionate impacts on those neighborhoods when reviewing projects.

Bullard, who is a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, said since that change in the mid-1990s it has been much easier for under-resourced communities to stop unwelcome industrial facilities.

A year after Clinton’s executive order, for example, Bullard and other environmental justice advocates were able to use the environmental review process to stop the construction of a uranium enrichment plant in the majority-black town of Homer, La.

In 2016, an interagency group completed a report on how to further bolster community input in the environmental review process. 

But Ali said in an interview Wednesday that “this administration ignored” those recommendations.

“Whether they want to say, there are pretty vulnerable communities in greater harm,” said Ali, who resigned from the EPA in 2017 after Trump’s White House proposed defunding his work. He is currently vice president of environmental justice at the National Wildlife Federation.

Washington Post reporter Dennis Brady talks with Mustafa Ali, a former EPA environmental justice leader who served more than two decades with the agency, to discuss the consequences of President Trump's budget proposal. (McKenna Ewen/The Washington Post)

During the pandemic, Native American tribal groups in Alaska and New Mexico say it is harder for them to participate in online meetings about expanding oil and gas drilling near their lands since many of them lack high-quality Internet connections.

The oil industry and other developers, which have long clamored for changes to the 50-year-old NEPA law they say bogs down economic growth in unnecessary red tape, cheered Trump’s decision to loosen the requirements. Trump has argued companies need relief now more than ever after the U.S. economy went into recession in February.

“The need for continued progress in this streamlining effort is all the more acute now, due to the ongoing economic crisis,” Trump wrote in his June 4 executive order.

The EPA is also relaxing rules on pollution monitoring during the pandemic. 

In March, just as the novel coronavirus gripped the United States and shut down much of the economy, the EPA issued a memorandum telling companies they would not be penalized for failing to monitor pollution from their facilities if the pandemic prevented them from doing so. 

That memo has faced a renewed round of criticism this month since the start of the protests. Polluting industries often set up shop where it is cheapest — in low-income neighborhoods.

Earlier research from Harvard has linked the presence of sooty air to high death rates from covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, though the oil industry and some Republicans in Congress say the findings are too raw to be the basis for public policy.

The coronavirus is infecting and killing black Americans, who are already at a greater risk of exposure to soot, at a disproportionately high rate, according to a Washington Post analysis in April.

During Tuesday’s House hearing on air pollution and the pandemic, Ali said the issues of systemic racism in policing and environmental deregulation compound one another.  

“Frontline communities are under attack from multiple emergencies happening at the same time,” Ali said during Tuesday’s House hearing. “Black communities are dealing with the systemic racism that has infected the policing in our communities that is literally choking us to death. The rolling back of environmental rules and regulations has us gasping for air due to the cumulative public health impacts from the burning of fossil fuels in our communities.”

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), chair of the Energy and Commerce panel, echoed those concerns, noting House Democrats included $50 million in grants for communities facing acute pollution in their latest coronavirus relief package, which passed the House last month but has not been taken up by the GOP-controlled Senate.

“We simply cannot allow this to continue, and unfortunately, the Trump administration is only making this public health and environmental crisis worse,” Pallone said. “When this administration announces that it will not enforce some environmental laws and regulations during the pandemic, that hurts these communities."

The EPA has defended its coronavirus enforcement by noting the Obama administration made a similar move in response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012. 

"Nobody is allowed to increase their emissions under our enforcement discretion," EPA spokesperson James Hewitt said. “Despite multiple congressional briefings and correspondence, it’s clear Mr. Pallone has yet to read the text of EPA’s temporary enforcement discretion memo.”

Power plays

The Trump administration is reportedly waiting until after the November election to open the door to oil and gas drilling off Florida’s coast. 

Energy companies have long wanted to drill in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, hoping to gain access to oil that was previously off-limits. “But even the possibility of drilling is a politically explosive topic for Floridians, who worry that oil spills would devastate their tourism-based economy in a reprise of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster,” Politico reports.

For its part, the Interior Department tweeted a denial of Politico’s report. 

“Interior has spent years working on a proposed drilling plan that would expand oil companies‘ access to waters around the country's coastline, including a draft plan issued in 2018 by the Trump administration that considered opening the federal waters off both of Florida's coasts,” per Politico. 

But the report cites sources who say Interior officials expect a plan to be released after the election but before the end of Trump’s first term, in part because of the sensitive politics around the issue in the Sunshine State, "but also because Interior Secretary David Bernhardt was conducting reviews to ensure it was legally defensible,” Politico adds. 

Interior says offshore wind farms may have an “adverse” impact on commercial fishing. 

The Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has released an analysis on what’s expected to be the first large-scale wind project in the nation, planned for off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, as E&E News reports

“The supplemental study, which is to be published in the Federal Register at an unspecified time, looks beyond Vineyard Wind — which is planned off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, Mass. — and outlines a host of effects that the burgeoning offshore wind sector in the Northeast could have on other industries, the environment and marine life,” per the report. “It notes, for example, major cumulative impacts to commercial and recreational fishing, scientific research, and in some cases environmental justice across a suite of development scenarios. Additionally, moderate cumulative impacts are expected to marine mammals and minor cumulative impacts to air quality.”

Michigan filed a lawsuit against the owner of a failed dam that caused historic flooding. 

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel says Boyce Hydro LLC, owner and operator of the Edenville Dam, “repeatedly put its own profits over the safety of the public." "We know the owners of the dam, with their long history of neglect, are responsible for the dam's failure," Nessel said, according to the Detroit Free Press

The state could seek millions in damages and expenses for the response and recovery.

“The Edenville Dam, in Midland and Gladwin counties on the Tittabawassee and Tobacco rivers, failed amid torrential rains May 19, resulting in the subsequent failure of the downriver Sanford Dam and leading to catastrophic flooding in Midland County,” per the report. “Some 2,500 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed, and damages are estimated at more than $175 million.”

The Trump administration cited the 2009 “Miracle on the Hudson” flight in its push to end protections for migratory birds. 

 “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cited the ditched flight, which lost power after Canada geese struck both engines, as part of its draft environmental review published June 5 for a proposed rule re-interpreting the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918,” Bloomberg Law reports. “The rule would prevent companies from being fined for accidentally killing migratory birds such as geese, herons, ducks, warblers, hummingbirds and swans.”

The rule would affect the fate of 1,000 bird species across the country.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued a rule to delay pipeline construction until there are decisions made in the appeals process. 

“Landowners can challenge the body’s approvals of infrastructure projects by asking for a rehearing. Previously, companies could move forward with construction during that period. But they now will have to wait until either the period during which rehearing requests can be filed expires or until the commission makes a decision on the rehearing request,” the Hill reports.

“These are complex issues, with a diverse array of stakeholder input, but I remain firmly committed to doing what we can to make the FERC process as fair, open, and transparent as possible for all those affected while the Commission thoroughly considers all issues,” FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee said in a statement. 

The Weather Company announced dozens of layoffs, part of a wave of cuts by parent company IBM. 

One of the impact of the cuts is the closing of the popular Weather Underground Category 6 blog, which launched in 2005 and has been a destination for in-depth analysis of extreme weather events. “The layoffs were announced internally May 21, and the last day for affected workers is June 22,” Jason Samenow reports.

Beyond the shuttering of the Category 6 blog, the Weather Company has “also cut staff in its other divisions, including writers, editors and video journalists for weather.com, the website for the Weather Channel, and meteorologists and support staff for the group that supports private-sector clients with forecast information and graphics, formerly known as Weather Services International.”

Coronavirus fallout

A union for EPA workers wants the agency to pause any reopening plans.

The American Federation of Government Employees sent a letter to EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler calling on the agency to “place an immediate moratorium on reopening any regional office until the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are more predictable,” according to the Hill. 

The letter adds: “This plan does nothing to help reopen the economy, but instead simply requires employees to crowd onto public transit and self-screen as they enter office buildings to essentially telework remotely at their desk.” 

The request comes as the EPA weighs plans to bring employees back in offices, and as some offices plan to open as soon as this month, per the report.