As Scott Pruitt’s ethical woes mount, we must not lose sight of the profound damage he has done to environmental safeguards in just one year – and how disproportionally that affects people in our country.
Pruitt’s legacy will mean growing threats for people of color and low-income Americans who tend to live closer to sources of toxic pollution than the rest of our population, directly affecting the health of millions of families and children nationwide.
This at a time when his own U.S. Environmental Protection Agency researchers continue to report that vulnerable Americans bear the brunt of pollution.
Decades of slow progress at the EPA, under the administrations of both parties, had been seeking to ensure that policies are fair to everyone.
That all changed last year when Pruitt stepped into his role as EPA administrator and made environmental injustice the norm at the agency he runs. Here are five egregious examples.
1. He’s undermined plans to cut smog, climate pollution
African-American children are twice as likely to be hospitalized for asthma as whites, and are more likely to die from asthma. Latino children are 40 percent more likely to die from asthma than white children.
Pruitt’s sweeping efforts to roll back critical rules to slow climate change and reduce smog pollution would, if he succeeds, directly increase the threat of lung disease for these children.
2. He tried to eliminate EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice
In his first months on the job, Pruitt tried to do away with the office dedicated to tackling pollution exposure disparities among Americans. Now he wants to fold the Office of Environmental Justice into another office managed by one of his key counselors – a bureaucratic maneuver meant to weaken policy initiatives.
In another remarkable example of poor optics, Pruitt also appointed to a key EPA environmental justice advisory panel a man who runs a company tied up in a major contamination scandal involving cancer-causing plutonium in Washington state.
3. He wants to weaken protections against toxic coal waste
Coal ash is the second-largest source of industrial waste in the United States. More than 1.5 million people of color live near coal ash waste pits that have been found to taint the air and water in surrounding communities.
And yet, Pruitt recently proposed to weaken federal rules governing such toxic waste, which is generated by coal-fired power plants and contains harmful chemicals such as lead, mercury and arsenic.
His decision to weaken these long-fought-for rules came on the heels of EPA’s decision to reject an Alabama civil rights claim by rural African American residents over a landfill containing toxic coal ash.
4. He’s targeting safeguards against toxic air pollution
Factories, incinerators, power plants and other polluting industrial sites have long been concentrated in neighborhoods where residents have historically lacked the resources to fight back.
Nevertheless, Pruitt approved rollbacks of critical policies limiting toxic air pollution. These actions are allowing chemical factories, steel mills and other industrial facilities to expose adjacent communities to higher concentrations of lead, benzene and other dangerous pollutants.
The communities that will be most affected by this action have a disproportionate number of low-income, African-American and Latino residents.
5. He sought massive cuts to lead risk program
More than half a million kids in the U.S. – a large number of whom are poor – have elevated lead levels in their bodies, mostly from lead paint and old pipes.
But despite Pruitt’s rhetoric about a war on lead, he wants to eliminate the Lead Risk Reduction Program. He has also proposed a 33-percent cut in grants to states for use in supervising public water systems and training lead removal contractors.
Two decades of environmental justice work – erased?
The EPA chief’s slash-and-burn ethos can set back more than 25 years of work to address the link between race, poverty and pollution – advanced through executive orders, dedicated funding, expert advisory committees and grass roots movements.
So now, more than ever before, we must remain vigilant in the courts to fight these rollbacks. We must share our personal stories of the public health and environmental harm Pruitt’s actions are inflicting.
And we must remind Congress at every turn that they have the authority and obligation to stand up for healthy families and safe communities. Remaining silent cannot be an option; the stakes are too high.