Low-income Black and Latino communities will be pummeled by the Trump administration’s changes to the nation’s permitting rules for federal infrastructure projects, according to environmental justice leaders across the country.
These communities rely heavily on the National Environmental Policy Act to push back against pipelines, highways, power plants, and other major projects that have historically polluted minority neighborhoods to a greater degree than more affluent White neighborhoods, the leaders say.
But the White House’s changes to NEPA, issued on Wednesday, will mute their voices and speed projects through in record time without enough consideration of their impacts on the air, land, and water, according to Hilton Kelley, founder and director of the Community In-Power and Development Association Inc. in Port Arthur, Texas, an industrial town surrounded by large refineries and petrochemical plants.
“They want to silence our voices,” Kelley said. “Whenever there’s a new industry coming in, they don’t want to let the community speak about why they might not want that industry in our community.”
The NEPA changes also show “how out of step they are with what’s going on here in the U.S. as it relates to racial injustice,” said Catherine Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice.
“Racial inequality has always been there in our country, and it’s finally time that folks are starting to take notice,” Kym Hunter, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said. “NEPA is one tool that has been used to help those communities stand up and have a voice, which is the first step for eliminating these types of inequalities. Instead what we’re seeing is the Trump administration doing exactly the reverse.”
A Seat at the Table
The White House Council on Environmental Quality on Wednesday said the rule will actually expand public participation by requiring federal agencies to provide more information and solicit input from the public earlier in the process. The rule calls for involving state, tribal, and local governments.
A balance must be struck between encouraging community input and delaying projects for so long that they never get built, Jeffrey Kupfer, the former acting deputy secretary at the Energy Department under President George W. Bush, said.
“You don’t necessarily need five years of NEPA review to evaluate the concerns of the people impacted by it,” said Kupfer, now a public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “To me, it’s legitimate that people are concerned and they want their voices to be heard. But I think there’s ways to make sure that’s accommodated without having a process that’s unworkable.”
Sidley Austin LLP attorney Peter Whitfield, who represents clients in the renewable energy, transportation, and oil and gas industries, said tribes and states better understand environmental justice communities. “That provision enhancing cooperative roles and consulting roles allows a broader ability of an agency to address those concerns,” he said.
But Hunter disagreed that the NEPA changes will actually raise up minority voices.
Many projects will no longer be subject to NEPA under new threshold requirements, she said. The new rule also strikes the requirement to consider the indirect and cumulative impacts of a project, thereby limiting the types of information communities will have access to, she said.
“Imagine a low-income black community already surrounded by highways,” Hunter said. “A new highway is planned, but there is no requirement to look at its cumulative effects. So the agency won’t have to disclose how much air pollution will get worse in combination with existing projects, or how noise will change, or if the new highway will cause local roads to get more congested.”
Kabir Green, director of federal affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, agreed, calling the notion that the changes give communities of color a great voice “a brazen mischaracterization of what the new rules would do.”
“The White House wants to try and say otherwise, but by excluding many projects from environmental review, this will keep people in the dark while ramming through new pipelines, highways and other projects,” Green said.
Voices of ‘Everyday Folk’
Environmental justice leaders say NEPA has been a crucial tool in protecting their air, water, land, and health for 50 years.
Omar Muhammad, executive director of the Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities in North Charleston, S.C., said NEPA helped the community secure $4 million for community development from the South Carolina Ports Authority as part of the agency’s expansion of a shipping terminal.
“These were everyday folk who were working—community advocates, residents,” Muhammad said, describing those who got involved in the NEPA process. “They wanted to understand that project. They would gather every evening and read the environmental impact statement.”
Similarly, Ella Rose, an activist and resident of Union Hill—a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buckingham County, Va., with a high unemployment rate—told House lawmakers on Tuesday that community engagement was crucial in stopping the planned Atlantic Coast pipeline.
“The more I learned, the more I realized that I had to protect my home and community,” Rose told the House Natural Resources Committee’s Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee. “This was especially so when I learned that the location of the compressor station, a very large, noisy polluting infrastructure, was on land only 150 feet from my front door.”
During the same hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.). said the Atlantic Coast pipeline’s recent cancellation announcement, alongside the recent court order to shut down the Dakota Access pipeline pending environmental review, “can be directly attributed to environmental justice activism.”
Flowers said the rule also hurts low-income communities of color because it lands in the midst of a global pandemic that has disproportionately afflicted Black Americans.
“In the midst of a pandemic that has already exposed the disparities and injustices that exist across the country, to roll back these requirements and make the same people even more vulnerable is heartless,” she said.
Black Americans are 75% more likely to live in communities next to pollution sources, “and now those same people are dying at 2.5 times the rate of a White person,” Stephen Schima, senior legislative counsel at Earthjustice, said. “The feckless decision the Trump administration made yesterday on NEPA will only increase this disparity.”
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