At a Michigan campaign rally in August 2016, then-GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump tried to appeal to the African-American community with a hypothetical question: “What do you have to lose by trying something new like Trump?”
Now that his administration is taking shape, the answer is becoming very, very clear. His nominee for Attorney General has called the NAACP “un-American,” his nominee for the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development has referred to desegregation as “a failed socialist experiment,” and his chief strategist led the website credited with making blatant racism mainstream again. Now, with the nomination of Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Trump is signaling an attack on public health—which has pronounced health hazards for communities of color.
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Pruitt’s confirmation hearings begin on Wednesday, and his record is providing ample questions for the process. As Attorney General for Oklahoma, Pruitt has spent much of his career trying to dismantle the EPA. He led state attorneys general efforts to sue the EPA over its Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon pollution from dirty-fueled power plants. As Attorney General, he eliminated the office’s Environmental Protection Unit. He has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in political donations from oil and gas interests, and then repeated their calls to allow greater pollution—almost verbatim—to the very agency he is nominated to now serve. An investigation found him to be part of a secret, collaborate alliance between attorneys general and the energy industry. He also denies the science of climate change, despite global scientific agreement.
“Pruitt personifies environmental injustice,” according to Earl Hatley, Grand Riverkeeper and co-founder of the Oklahoma-based nonprofit Local Environmental Action Demanded Agency. Hatley expects Pruitt to provide the oil and gas industry exemptions from air and water protections—first by targeting the Clean Air Act, and then by remove fracking regulations. “Oklahoma is an oil state; it always has been,” says Hatley. “We’re trying to fight it, but with people like Pruitt, the pushback is really hard.”
Pruitt’s record of attacking public health, clean air, and safe drinking water safeguards should concern everyone, but African-American and Latino communities face some of the most serious health risks. Due in part to the enduring legacy of discriminatory housing policies, communities of color are more likely to have lead poisoning or contaminated water, be exposed to hazardous levels of air particle pollutants, and have their homes damaged during extreme weather. In 2007, nearly half of all people of color in the United States—an estimated 46 percent to 48 percent—lived within six miles of a hazardous waste facility.
Given these risks, it is vital for communities of color to have an EPA Administrator who embraces the environmental justice movement, which fights to give communities of color equal access to clean air and water. The EPA has been criticized for ignoring this movement in the past, but in recent years the agency launched a series of actions to support it—including the EJ 2020 Action Agenda, which includes defining priority areas and engaging in community-based work, and provides roadmaps for outreach and engagement with tribes and communities. The EPA also released a mapping tool that illustrates exactly which communities are most exposed to pollution.
This provides some hope to communities of color, but the EPA has much more work to do.
In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan—and multiple cities throughout the United States—marginalized communities are relying on the EPA now, more than ever, to protect their health from the hazards of water and air pollution. The EPA needs leadership that will protect Americans from pollution and climate change impacts, rather than destroy the EPA’s mission to give people clean air and water.
If there was any question about President-elect Trump’s interest in helping communities of color, he answered it himself. He had the option to nominate an EPA Administrator who pledged to support the agency’s mission to set and enforce air and water quality safeguards, work to reduce air and water pollution, and continue to incorporate environmental justice efforts throughout the agency. Instead, he selected a nominee who wants to attack decades of environmental progress, with no record of helping communities of color fight for environmental equality.
With Scott Pruitt as EPA Administrator, we have a lot to lose.