READ: Inside the Fight to Advance Environmental Justice in the Time of Trump

By Ayana Byrd Jul 26, 2017

While President Donald Trump’s budget proposal is poised to negatively impact communities of color in myriad ways, one item in it is particularly alarming for environmental and community activists: a $2 million cut to the Office of Environmental Justice. In response, Democrats in Congress are drafting bills to save the department, which advocates for people of color and lower-income Americans.

ProPublica, in the article “Has the Moment for Environmental Justice Been Lost?” explores the creation of the office:

This tiny corner of the [Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)] was established 24 years ago to advocate for minorities and the poor, populations most likely to face the consequences of pollution and least able to advocate for themselves.

It does so by acting as a middleman, connecting vulnerable communities with those who can help them. It heads a group that advises EPA officials about injustices and another that brings together representatives from other federal agencies and the White House to swap proposals.

When it works, all the talk leads to grants, policies and programs that change lives.

The article, written by Talia Buford, also tracks how environmental justice fared under various U.S. presidents, beginning with George H.W. Bush, who created the office, and his son, George W. Bush, who passed policies that systemically eroded environmental justice successes:

Then, Barack Obama was elected. He’d promised in his campaign to “resurrect” civic environmental responsibility and to prioritize remediation efforts in “neglected communities so that living daily with extreme environmental pollution and health risks will be a condition of the past.”

His administration raised the profile of the Office of Environmental Justice, audited the Office of Civil Rights and eliminated a backlog of cases against polluters (though it drew criticism from those who said it hadn’t done enough).

After detailing environmental hits and misses under the Obama Administration, the article turns to the current government in a section titled, “Trump Takes Aim”:

“I agree that it is important that all Americans be treated equally under the law,” [EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt] said in written responses to questions raised during his confirmation hearing, “including the environmental laws.”

The language sounds fair on its face, said Huang, of [Natural Resources Defense Council], but ignores that environmental harm is not experienced equally by all communities.

“They’re saying environmental justice is for everybody, regardless of your race,” he said. “It’s like saying ‘All Lives Matter’ but for environmental justice.”

As the Office faces severe budget cutbacks—which would essentially hobble its ability to operate—elected officials are gearing up to save it. Two bills were proposed in the House in May to create an environmental justice czar in the president’s office and legislate the Office of Environmental Justice at the EPA:

“We’re still trying on numerous levels … to bring forward the disproportionate burden communities of color face and the institutionalized racism that exists within our systems of government,” [Washington Rep. Pramila] Jayapal said. “It’s not easy to talk about, but it’s true. If we want to address environmental justice, we have to recognize that not all people are suffering equally.”

Twenty-two Democratic senators signed a letter in May asking for the Appropriations Committee to override Trump’s budget and fund EPA’s civil rights and environmental justice offices, saying the cuts are “putting all Americans at risk, and especially those Americans who bear a disproportionate burden of exposures to pollution.”

“These communities have long been suffering under unconscionable conditions,” said [Cory Booker (D-NJ)], one of the signatories. “We’re not doing enough to stop this evil.” 

Booker is readying an environmental justice bill to introduce to the Senate after Labor Day, though details on what it will contain have not yet been released. But activists are doubtful of the impact it could have:

“Unfortunately, for the last 20 years, we’ve been in a period of trying to find the right political moment when the stars align so that you might be able to get a bill through Congress,” said [environmental activist Vernice] Miller-Travis. “Is this a moment when I think we can get something passed that expands civil rights and equal protection? I don’t think this is that moment. That doesn’t mean we won’t try.”