EPA Moves to Shield Neighborhoods from Smog

By Michelle Chen Jan 09, 2010

The EPA proposed stronger regulations on smog pollution this week, paving the way for stronger controls on the poisonous fumes that hover over poor and racially segregated communities. The agency is starting to undo the damage of Bush-era guidelines that basically hamstrung federal authority for monitoring and curbing smog pollution. The new standards limit smog density to 0.060 and 0.070 parts per million (ppm), down from the earlier limit of 0.075 ppm. According to the EPA, “Depending on the level of the final standard, the proposal would yield health benefits between $13 billion and $100 billion. This proposal would help reduce premature deaths, aggravated asthma, bronchitis cases, hospital and emergency room visits and days when people miss work or school because of ozone-related symptoms.” Under Bush, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the American Lung Association sued the Bush administration to overturn the weak standards, and last year, the agency moved to revise the regulations to meet the recommendations of scientific advisers. The decision could dramatically increase the number of communities deemed in violation of federal standards. The AP reports:

The new limits being considered by the Environmental Protection Agency could more than double the number of counties in violation and reach places like California’s wine country in Napa Valley and rural Trego County, Kan., and its 3,000 residents. For the first time, counties in Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, the Dakotas, Kansas, Minnesota and Iowa might be forced to find ways to clamp down on smog-forming emissions from industry and automobiles, or face government sanctions, most likely the loss of federal highway dollars.

The issue strikes at the heart of a longstanding environmental justice battle, and foreshadows new battles ahead on climate change. Though smog from cars and factories is considered localized air pollution, as opposed to the more global threat of carbon emissions, global warming aggravates the respiratory problems stemming from filthy air. A recent study by the University of Southern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity affirmed what a few minutes standing on an Oakland street corner would tell you: “EPA researchers have found that nationwide, the most polluted locations have significantly higher-than-average percentages of blacks, Latinos, and Asian-American residents.” In addition to the health tax people of color tend to bear, research shows that even in areas with relatively clean air, like California and Colorado, the racial disparities in pollution impact are among the nation’s worst. Communities for a Better Environment pointed out in a 2003 report on California air quality that Latinos faced disproportionate health risks from living downwind from air-polluting facilities. Communities of color in California are also especially vulnerable to air pollution from cars and trucks, particularly diesel. A 2003 community-based study by the Pacific Institute uncovered a stunning contrast between one Bay Area community and its neighbors:

Some West Oakland residents are exposed to roughly five times more diesel particulates than residents in other parts of Oakland. West Oakland residents may have an increased risk of one extra cancer per 1,000 residents due to diesel particulate exposure over a lifetime…. There are 6 times more diesel particulates emitted per person and over 90 times more diesel particulates per square mile per year in West Oakland than in the State of California.

Can you guess who lives in West Oakland? Urban Habitat described it as “the poorest neighborhood in the Bay Area, where 55 percent of the households earn less than $25,000 per year. In addition to its rich African-American history, West Oakland has growing Latino (16 percent) and Asian (9 percent) populations.” The hundreds of new communities to be added to the federal regulators’ watchlist could further affirm the pattern of dumping dirty air on Black and Latino neighborhoods, including perhaps farmworker-heavy rural enclaves that are seldom linked to industrial smog. Another ugly intersection between climate change and local air pollution: the worst polluters flagged in the PERE study, leading the nation in both general emissions and racial inequality in pollution impacts, are the same household names driving the global climate change phenomenon, like ExxonMobil and Hess. Maybe the most tragic aspect of the air pollution crisis in these neighborhoods is that often, there’s literally no way out. Communities for a Better Environment notes that marginalized communities lack access to public transit, which alienates them further from economic opportunities, food markets and hospitals. That increases their dependency on cars and dependency on polluting industries for jobs, fueling a cycle of intensifying health and environmental degradation. For many of those families, stronger government intervention won’t dismantle the trap of pollution—that could only be accomplished through holistic infrastructure and social policies that tackle systemic disparities. But those communities may soon gain a legal tool to help them start clearing the air. Image: Environmental Protection Agency