As African-Americans, we know there are a plethora of reasons our lifespans are almost four years lower than Whites, but there’s a menacing health danger flying under the radar that gets far too little attention. It can cause cancer, miscarriages, deformities and dysentery, and for many of us it’s right in our backyards: environmental pollution, such as air pollution and toxic waste.
African Americans are much more likely than Whites, for instance, to live near hazardous waste landfills. Whether we’re low-income, middle class or upper income, our neighborhood generally have 38 percent more nitrogen dioxide emissions than White neighborhoods, which could account in part for our higher asthma rates and the fact that we are 20 times more likely to have heart disease before the age of 50 than whites. Why do we breathe worse air? Because we are more likely to live near highways, factories and power plants that emit pollutants like nitrogen dioxide.
Our water supplies are more likely to be contaminated with lead and we are more likely to suffer the dire health consequences because of it. And if Flint, Mich. has shown us anything, it’s that Black communities cannot depend on state and local authorities to look out for their safety.
So who can our communities turn to to protect us from these environmental disasters? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The EPA is tasked with protecting everyone in the U.S. from pollution in the air, the water and soil in and around our communities. It is there to prevent corporations and local governments from violating environmental laws and dumping toxic waste in our backyards, and it functions as a watchdog addressing problems like leaking gas pipelines and the contamination of community water supplies.
The EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice is the only part of the federal government charged with mitigating racial disparities in pollution across the country. It has played an important role in providing much-needed support to vulnerable, economically struggling communities of color that need a helping hand to ensure their safety.
The Office of Environmental Justice made headway in 2016 with a plan to focus on alleviating environmental problems in the 100 most overburdened communities. Those plans also included addressing communities with toxic amounts of lead in their water supplies, like Flint, Mich. Among other initiatives, the EPA has routinely given out grants to Black community groups to help us protect our water, create environmentally sustainable infrastructure and test soil for contamination.
Or, at least it did before the Trump administration.
President Trump sees environmental regulations, which often force corporations to measure and control pollution, as a burden on potential profits. While he was a candidate, he promised to shrink the EPA “in almost every form” and reduce it to “tidbits” of what it is, and he is well on his way to succeeding in that goal. Trump’s proposed budget will cut the agency off at its knees and impede its ability to enforce protections and safeguards our communities rely on. It will make stopping air pollution and the release of deadly chemicals into our water supplies all the more difficult.
As of now the 2018 budget blueprint calls for cutting the EPA’s budget by 31 percent, eliminating over 3,200 EPA workers. In all, more than 50 EPA programs are on the chopping block, including the Office of Environmental Justice. The proposed cuts are so dismal, they led the office’s Senior Advisor and one of the nation’s preeminent environmentalists of color Mustafa Ali to resign from his post two weeks ago.
When we talk about the resistance, we need to make sure we include protecting the environmental safety of our communities. Now more than ever, we must work together to fight environmental discrimination and make progress — even under a substantially weakened EPA. If we can’t count on the EPA we must pressure our state and local governments for their help.
We must fight this destruction of our communities like our lives depend on it. Because they do.
Keith Rushing is Advocacy Lead for Earthjustice.