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By Rachel Leven
Flint, Mich., residents held protests and spoke out at town halls for months about their brown, foul-smelling drinking water. But it took a university and a pediatrician’s tests of the water and children’s blood lead levels before the crisis spurred government action.“We substantiated what Flint residents had been screaming for months and put it on the internet for the world to see,” Siddhartha Roy, one of the graduate students at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University that tested Flint’s water, said in a November 2016 TED Talk.
Environmental justice advocates for decades have sought data to back up their anecdotal experience with pollution in their communities, both on a national and local level. But as data become more readily available, they face a new administration that may not give that information the same weight. The Environmental Protection Agency’s central environmental justice office—established by President George H.W. Bush—would be eliminated under President Donald Trump’s proposed budget and placed within the EPA’s Office of the Administrator.
With the EPA scaling back its work across the board, states and communities are expected to continue their own work on these issues. In some ways, the new administration and state-of-play in Washington on the whole has placed the onus to lead back “on our shoulders,” Robert Bullard, who has been called the father of the environmental justice movement, told Bloomberg BNA.
“It would be unrealistic to expect the government to lead the charge in addressing environmental and health inequities around the country,” Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University, said.
The EPA didn’t respond to Bloomberg BNA’s requests for comment. The National Association of Manufacturers, whose staff have served on an EPA environmental justice advisory council and signed letters on behalf of the Business Network for Environmental Justice, also didn’t respond to Bloomberg BNA’s requests for comment.
With EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt questioning how much humans contribute to climate change, some environmental justice advocates are worried that data isn’t holding the same weight in decision-making.
“There are too many people in this administration that are denying that climate change is real and is linked to human causes. Data is not being taken seriously,” Paul Mohai, a University of Michigan professor who looks at environmental-justice issues, told Bloomberg BNA. “What I’m hopeful of is that there are people in the administration that can be persuaded.”
The agency’s recent decision not to limit the use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos didn’t help assuage those concerns. Chlorpyrifos is used to protect fruit, vegetables, and other crops, but environmentalists say studies show its use has been linked to neurodevelopmental delays in children.
“I naively thought that the fact that we had really strong health and environment data” would matter, Lisa Garcia, a former senior environmental justice adviser to the EPA administrator under the Obama administration and now vice president of litigation for healthy communities at Earthjustice, told Bloomberg BNA. “I thought that this administration wouldn’t be so ready to disregard it … Now, I think that this administration is truly being guided by profit, industry, and politics.”
Many also expressed concerns that environmental pollution data advocates and academics use to better understand these issues on community or national levels will disappear or not be updated.
For example, some advocates fear legislation (H.R. 482/S. 103) introduced this Congress by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), which would bar the federal government from building and maintaining a database on racial disparities in affordable housing access, may be a first step toward limiting collection of other data relating to racial inequalities.
A spokesman for Lee told Bloomberg BNA in an email that “we are very much willing to limit the language of the bill” to apply only to affordable housing.
Environmental justice advocates have long relied upon national data to demonstrate a pattern of racial disparities of people who live near large sources of pollution. In 1987, the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice finished a landmark report, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, that for the first time looked for a national pattern. They found that race is the most significant predictor of whether there are commercial hazardous waste facilities or how many of those facilities there are in a U.S. community. It was the first time communities had used data to validate their concerns on a national basis, justice experts said.
Within five years, the report garnered enough attention to get an environmental justice office at the EPA. Within seven years, President Bill Clinton issued an executive order (E.O. 12898) on the issue. Since then, states, legislatures, academics, and others have expanded the means to collect and harness data on what pollution is actually in communities and across the country.
Still, as much as they are bracing for potential problems, they haven’t seen any yet when it comes to data availability as much as they are bracing for potential problems, they haven’t seen any yet when it comes to data availability. However, there haven’t been changes yet. While an industry source who requested anonymity to speak freely said it’s unlikely that there would be “bold new initiatives” started by the EPA, the administration would not want to compromise existing data or halt those efforts.
Alexandra Dunn, executive director of the Environmental Council of the States, said the administration has continued a commitment to environmental justice. For example, it held its National Environmental Justice Advisory Council meeting in April and is leaving EJSCREEN, a federal mapping tool that uses environmental and census data to identify potentially overburdened communities, in place. Even if the justice office was re-organize, that doesn’t mean those efforts would go away, she said.
“States are not as troubled by reorganization, if it’s designed to get more effective results,” Dunn told Bloomberg BNA.
Unless collection is required by law, advocates would face a tough legal battle trying to force the Trump administration to keep justice-related data up-to-date, Gerald Torres, the Jane M.G. Foster Professor of Law at Cornell University, told Bloomberg BNA.
But if the administration makes decisions affecting overburdened populations, for example, on permitting or state implementation plans, there could be lawsuits under the Administrative Procedure Act, Torres said.
Data have been integral to how states, the federal government, and business decide to address these issues. But the rise of the Internet, advancement of technology, and other developments have allowed federal and state regulators, academics, and others to do even more with that data.
For example, under the Obama administration’s EPA environmental justice strategies, the EPA conducted a landmark environmental justice-specific analysis of a rule defining what materials are solid wastes (RIN:2050-AG62) released in 2015. The analysis looked at what kind of hazards could be posed and who would be impacted.
And its regional offices also intended to use the EJSCREEN tool to determine whether environmental justice communities will likely be affected when reviewing permit applications and flag those areas for the regions to thoroughly review during its actual analysis.
On the state side, California offers another venue to look at the data trajectory in government for these issues when a legislature is on board.
The state has harnessed the state’s CalEnviroScreen tool, one that serves a similar purpose but preceded the EPA’s EJSCREEN tool, to identify overburdened communities to receive revenues under its cap-and-trade program. And the state’s hazardous waste permitting agency was required to consider establishing or updating its regulations to assess what other environmental and health burdens exist in a given community—a task that could harness CalEnviroScreen as well.
Newer research, such as the 2007 Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987-2007 report, has offered greater validation through more extensive research methods to verify these facts and to expand the knowledge about the causes and impacts of disproportionate pollution burdens. The 2007 report found that roughly 9.2 million people are estimated to lives within 1.8 miles of a commercial hazardous waste facility, with more than 5.1 million people of color living in a community with one or more of those facilities.
And, in general, technology advancements have allowed for more monitoring devices to better determine air quality in a given community, whether used by citizens, regulators or industry. Data sets such as the Toxics Release Inventory and EJSCREEN are now available for use online at will as well.
Regardless of what the Trump administration does with its own justice data efforts, states, academics, and advocates are expected to continue their own work. Outside groups, such as justice advocates and environmental groups, see other opportunities for using data to validate environmental justice claims.
For example, communities and academics have increasingly partnered together to identify, understand and raise awareness health and pollution disparities and can continue to expand these efforts, Sacoby Wilson, an environmental health professor at the University of Maryland, told Bloomberg BNA.
Academics and states say they’re working in particular on efforts to correlate health and environmental pollution data. State environmental regulators are also working to collaborate more with their public health colleagues to look at intersections between pollution and health data trends and information, Dunn said.
Through these efforts, states could look at health problems in a community and consider whether environmental pollution is contributing to those problems or start assessing whether pollution is causing health issues. States have also been working the EPA on the agency’s Community-Focused Exposure and Risk Screening Tool (C-FERST), which combines public health and environmental data to look at pollution, risk, and exposure reductions.
This intersection is also a newer frontier for academics, at least on a national scale.
Looking at correlations between health problems and environmental pollution on a national scale can be especially challenging for researchers because uniform health data can be harder to obtain, Mohai, one of the lead author on the Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty report, said. It’s also challenging to look at correlations in this area because, for example, people move and a number of factors could cause any given health outcome, he said.
“It’s one of the things that’s made the Flint water crisis stand out—that nobody’s disputing any more that the children were affected by the contaminated water,” Mohai said. “Detroit residents can complain about asthma or cancer, but how do you know what caused it? But in the Flint water crisis, nobody can argue that the lead exposure did not come from the water. In that case, it was a lot easier to link those health outcomes with the contaminated water.”
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