Environmental justice leaders say they are perplexed by EPA chief Andrew Wheeler’s commitments to low-income communities of color—one of the main themes of a speech he gave in California.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Wheeler laid out his views in a Thursday speech about the agency’s future, arguing the nation’s environmental policies have been a problem for frontline communities for decades, stretching back before the Trump administration. He said past policies haven’t done a thorough enough job of cleaning up such communities, and have pounded them economically.
But Anthony Rogers-Wright, policy coordinator at the Climate Justice Alliance, said Wheeler’s comments are “not just hypocrisy, it’s Orwellian lip service,” given the EPA’s track record under President Donald Trump.
Wheeler, speaking at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, said the EPA would reorganize the way it works with communities to better address their environmental problems if President Donald Trump is reelected.
“Neglect is a form of harm, and it’s not fair for these communities to be abandoned just because they don’t have enough political power to stop the neglect,” he said.
His speech also emphasized the EPA’s need to focus on holistic, community-level issues, saying the shift could turn the agency into “a much better version of government, with benefits that last for many administrations.”
Policies Versus Rhetoric
But rollbacks such as the recent final rule (RIN 2040-AF77) to give power companies more time and flexibility to clean up coal-fired power plants only add to the harms suffered by environmental justice communities, said Omar Muhammad, executive director of the Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities in North Charleston, S.C.
“The realities on the ground currently in environmental justice communities are not matching what is coming out of this administration,” Muhammad said. “Their policies are not matching up to their rhetoric.”
Another example came in March, when the EPA gave temporary relief to regulated entities unable to comply with certain reporting obligations because of the Covid-19 pandemic, said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
That move “basically says you’re putting EJ communities at the bottom of the list and elevating polluters’ concerns,” Hartl said.
Wheeler has repeatedly said the enforcement policy, which expired Sept. 1, didn’t permit new emissions and was put in place because the EPA didn’t want people to have to go into facilities for routine paperwork obligations.
NEPA Rules Rewrite
Angelo Logan, campaign director at the Moving Forward Network, said Wheeler’s pledges don’t ring true because the EPA’s actions have created more harm for environmental justice communities.
“Wheeler, the EPA, and the Trump administration either think we are dumb, or are dumb themselves, if they want EJ communities to believe rolling back rules and enforcement will stop the pollution that is killing our families and neighbors,” said Logan, co-founder of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice.
Muhammad, from the Lowcountry Alliance, also pointed to the White House Council on Environmental Quality finalizing reforms in July to the National Environmental Policy Act regulations.
The rewrite to the permitting rules are meant to make project approvals more efficient. But the act has also been a key tool for frontline communities 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, Muhammad said.
‘His Word Is Gold’
Michael McKenna, a Republican energy strategist and former White House official, defended Wheeler, saying he has a long history with environmental justice issues, “so he has a better sense than most about their trajectory.”
Wheeler’s personal character also matters, according to McKenna. “If Andy says he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it,” he said. “His word is gold.”
McKenna noted that, according to Wheeler, the EPA delisted 27 Superfund sites in 2019, the most in a single year since 2001. About 70% of the nation’s Superfund sites are within a mile of public housing. The progress shows Wheeler’s commitment to environmental justice, McKenna said.
Wheeler’s speech “recognized that bureaucratic and statutory factors have hindered EPA from taking a more holistic approach to protecting overburdened communities,” an EPA spokeswoman said.
Those challenges have existed for decades, she said, noting the administration has acted to elevate environmental justice within the agency.
“The truth is this country is facing a lot of environmental and social problems that have not been dealt with the right way up until now,” Wheeler said Thursday. “And while the focus of the next 50 years should not be like the last 50, it should be informed by it.”