While the novel coronavirus has raged across the United States, infecting more than 1 million Americans, the Trump administration has failed catastrophically in their efforts to protect the public. One of these myriad failures has come in the form of continued rollbacks of critical protections for clean air across the country.
In the last month alone, the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), headed by former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, has undone, failed to strengthen, or otherwise weakened four separate safeguards against air pollution. This is despite the fact that emerging research shows that populations living in areas with high air pollution—which, thanks to decades of environmental racism, predominantly include low-income communities, Native communities, and communities of color—may have a statistically higher mortality rate if infected with COVID-19.
The Trump administration is failing Americans in a time of great need. Tens of thousands of people across the country have already died. Instead of stepping up and taking necessary actions such as ramping up testing, producing or acquiring additional personal protective equipment for health workers, or even effectively communicating and coordinating across federal agencies, the Trump administration is using its limited energy and resources to roll back critical public health and environmental protections. This is an obscene abdication of responsibility during a crisis and further exposes this administration’s efforts to put polluters before the needs of the American people.
There is never a good time to roll back protections for clean air. However, doing so during a respiratory pandemic when pollution increases the risk of death from the coronavirus and many of those infected with the virus are struggling to breathe is undoubtedly the worst possible instance. The Trump administration’s EPA has taken four unconscionable actions to dirty our air during the past month of the COVID-19 pandemic, putting Americans—and especially persons of color—everywhere at high risk.
March 27, 2020: The Trump administration turned a blind eye to enforcement for polluting facilities
On March 27, 2020—at a point when 21 states had announced stay-at-home orders because of the severity of the coronavirus crisis—Trump’s EPA announced that it would be relaxing enforcement of limits on pollution from relevant facilities, including manufacturing plants, power plants, and oil and gas refineries. The EPA is now allowing companies to determine and report for themselves whether they are in compliance with all relevant clean air regulations. This amounts to a license to pollute. Allowing polluters to self-monitor has not worked in the past, and enforcement has been critical in ensuring that communities are not overburdened by pollution.
This is particularly concerning for environmental justice communities, which tend to disproportionately live near these kinds of polluting facilities and suffer from the cumulative effects of pollution over months, years, or decades. These are the very same communities that are being hardest hit by the coronavirus. A coalition of environmental justice and national environmental groups first called on—and then sued for—the EPA to, at a minimum, require that polluters in violation of the standards submit written notice to the EPA. This would ensure, at the very least, that nearby communities would know if they are being impacted by additional air pollution in their area—a very low bar for protecting public health. Thus far, however, the EPA has failed to take any additional protective actions.
March 31, 2020: The EPA finalized the rollback of the clean cars standards
Less than a week after announcing relaxed standards for polluting facilities, the Trump administration dealt clean air and public health another blow by finalizing the rollback and replacement of the Obama-era clean car standards. The previous standards were intended to both make vehicles more fuel efficient and reduce pollution from tailpipes. The Trump administration’s replacement rule, the Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles rule, significantly relaxes these emissions standards, leading to more carbon dioxide and particulate-matter pollution.
Wheeler has tried to argue that this replacement rule “supports our economy and the safety of American families.” A new report by the Environmental Protection Network (EPN) suggests the exact opposite: EPN predicts 18,500 premature deaths by 2050 as a result of higher particulate matter pollution as well as health-related costs to Americans and the economy totaling $190 billion. Given the $244 billion in extra fuel costs at the pump as a result of these standards, it is the fossil fuel industry that stands to benefit. And again, communities of color are disproportionately exposed to this increased tailpipe pollution—Black Americans and Hispanic Americans in particular.
April 14, 2020: Trump’s EPA refused to lower legal limit for particulate matter
Ignoring the recommendation of EPA’s scientific experts, EPA Administrator Wheeler declined to set stricter standards for national air quality approximately two weeks after finalizing its dirtier car standards. Specifically, EPA declined to lower the national standard for particulate matter. The most widespread and deadly air pollutant in the United States, particulate matter is emitted by sources such as power plants, cars, and factories. Because it is so small, particulate matter can get embedded deep in the lungs and cause significant respiratory issues.
The EPA’s own scientists recommended that the limit, which has been set at 12 micrograms per cubic meter since 2013, be lowered to between 8 and 10, pointing to estimates that a standard of 9 micrograms per cubic meter could save up to 12,200 lives annually. But Wheeler ignored these recommendations, instead allowing polluting facilities to continue fouling the air at the same levels. This is despite evidence that finds that long-term exposure to air pollution—particularly particulate matter—is associated with higher death rates from COVID-19.
April 16, 2020: Trump’s EPA undermined protections against toxic mercury pollution
Finally, just two days after declining to strengthen the particulate matter standard, EPA Administrator Wheeler announced that the EPA was finalizing its rule to undermine protections against mercury pollution, or the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS). These standards protect people against mercury and other toxic pollutants emitted by coal- and oil-fired power plants that can harm the lungs and damage the neurological system, particularly in pregnant people and young children.
Since they were announced in 2011, the standards have decreased mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants by nearly 82 percent nationwide. Yet Administrator Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, wants to reverse that progress. The standards now hang by a legal thread. Once again, it is communities of color most at risk. The NAACP found that 39 percent of people residing within 3 miles of a coal-fired power plant are people of color. This direct attack on public health is, like the actions above, flat-out dangerous during a respiratory pandemic.
At a time when the Trump administration should be doing everything in its power to save American lives, it is instead putting more and more of them at risk through reckless rollbacks of clean air protections. These rollbacks could all directly impair respiratory health—something that should be unthinkable during a public health crisis that specifically impacts the respiratory system—and will have devastating impacts on many of the same populations—namely communities of color or those suffering from a toxic legacy of pollution—that are already being disproportionately harmed by the coronavirus. These deadly rollbacks are merely handouts to the Trump administration’s polluting allies at a time when the president should be doing everything in his power to protect, rather than harm, public health. This administration will be remembered for its unscrupulous actions during a major public health crisis, when many of those infected with COVID-19 gasp for breath. Instead of stepping up to protect life-sustaining clean air for all Americans, Administrator Wheeler’s EPA made it even dirtier.
Sally Hardin is the deputy director of the Energy and Environment War Room at the Center for American Progress.
The author would like to thank Cathleen Kelly, Nicole Rapfogel, Connor Maxwell, Hannah Malus, Ari Drennen, and Will Beaudouin for their contributions to this column.
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