Health

Exclusive: EPA reverses Trump stance in push to tackle environmental racism

Michael Regan, head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, has sought to revive the effort to confront environmental racism by ordering the agency to crack down on the pollution that disproportionately blights people of color.

On Wednesday, Regan issued a directive to EPA staff to “infuse equity and environmental justice principles and priorities into all EPA practices, policies, and programs”. The memo demands the agency use the “full array of policy and legal tools at our disposal” to ensure vulnerable communities are front of mind when issuing permits for polluting facilities or cleaning up following disasters.

The directive states there should be better consultation with affected communities and indicates the EPA will be tougher on companies that violate air and water pollution mandates. Regan’s memo calls for the EPA to “strengthen enforcement of violations of cornerstone environmental statutes and civil rights laws in communities overburdened by pollution”.

Enforcement of pollution violations dropped steeply under Donald Trump’s administration, with the EPA even suspending routine inspections of facilities while the Covid-19 pandemic raged in the US last year.

A lack of federal intervention further exacerbated a longstanding inequity where poorer people and communities of color in the US are far more likely to be exposed to dangerous pollutants. The pandemic has further worsened this situation, with research showing that people with chronic exposure to air pollutants have suffered worse outcomes from Covid.

Years of discriminatory decisions over the placement of highways and industrial facilities have led to Black people being exposed to 38% more polluted air than white people, with exposure to toxins from cars and trucks in parts of the US two-thirds higher than for white people. Black children are five times more likely to be hospitalized from asthma than white children.

Michael Regan, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Photograph: USEPA photo by Eric Vance

“The EPA has focused on environmental justice for more than 30 years but while we have made progress there is so much more to do,” Regan told the Guardian. “We have not served communities to the level they should be served. We need to focus more on our efforts to uplift all communities, regardless of the money in their pockets, their race or zip codes.”

The EPA administrator said that he will use the agency’s authority “to the fullest extent to protect public health, particularly vulnerable communities. Enforcement is a critical piece of this, I will be fair but tough in terms of what the agency must do.”

Joe Biden has directed all federal agencies to develop environmental justice policies and has vowed that 40% of climate and infrastructure spending be directed towards disadvantaged communities. Advocates have warned, however, that the administration has plenty of work to uproot a legacy of environmental racism that stretches back generations.

“Trump depleted the EPA but these problems didn’t just start with Trump,” said Peggy Shepard, executive director of We Act for Environmental Justice.

“Emissions from heavy-duty trucks is a priority, lead in water is a priority, lead still being in paint is a priority. There is a lot to do and we need to do more than just roll back the rollbacks. We need to really examine the whole regulatory system if we are actually committed to strong public health standards in this country.”

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