Opinion: The conservative assault on environmental justice
Southern California battles air pollution (Getty Images)
By JORGE MADRID
All air is not equal in the United States. Minorities live and work in areas where they are disproportionately exposed to pollution that harms their health. More than 71 percent of African Americans and 66 percent of Latinos live in areas that fail to meet federal air quality standards, and 7 out of the 25 worst polluted U.S. cities have Latino populations over 40 percent.
Unfortunately, conservative politicians in Washington treat this national tragedy as a political football.
Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan) has a history of trying to score political points by attacking the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Most recently he has introduced a bill in Congress (HR 2876) to kill the Environmental Justice Eco-Ambassador Program, an internship program for minority graduate students who are interested in “environmental justice, social justice issues and/or environmental health disparities in an academic, volunteer and/or employment setting.”
According to Pompeo, the program is part of the Obama administration’s plot to “indoctrinate” students “to act as tools of this Administration’s radical policies.”
Aside from the fact that the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice was established in 1992 and has spanned through four administrations both Republican and Democratic alike, Pompeo is also spinning a very real and sinister problem in our country. Dismissing Environmental Justice as a “radical policy” undermines the suffering of millions of African Americans, Latinos, and other at-risk communities who are literally poisoned by pollution and exposure to toxins every day.
African American children have the highest number of asthma attacks among all ethnic groups, and Latino children are 60 percent more likely to suffer from asthma attacks than white children. Overall, African Americans and Latinos are the most likely groups to live near a coal-fired power plant, dramatically increasing their risk of exposure to Mercury, a dangerous neurotoxin released from coal fired power plants.
In the midst of these grave injustices, the Environmental Protection Agency has been the first and oftentimes only line of defense between vulnerable communities and dangerous pollution.
Between 1990 and 2010, EPA clean air laws prevented 23,000 Americans from dying prematurely, averted 1,700,000 incidences of asthma attacks, 22,000 respiratory-related hospital admissions and 4,800 emergency room visits for asthma.
If we wanted to monetize human health and safety, the net benefit (benefit minus cost) of EPA’s “radical” clean air laws would be $510 billion. This means that that the monetized benefits exceed the costs by four to one.
Of course, Pompeo and his conservative allies believe that none of this “radical environmental justice” is worth the price, even a $6,000 internship:
At a time when millions of Americans cannot find work and are saddled with record deficits and crippling environmental regulations, spending $6,000 of taxpayer money per student to act as tools of this Administration’s radical policies is clearly not acceptable — nor is it ever the role of the federal government to indoctrinate.
There is a very serious problem with Pompeo’s political gaming: it is putting millions of human lives at risk, particularly African American and Latino families. Our leaders in Congress should be defending, at all times, the right to breath clean air and live without excessive exposure to dangerous pollution. By dismissing environmental justice as “radical policy,” Pompeo and his conservative allies are assaulting human health and dignity.
Jorge Madrid is a Research Associate with the Energy Opportunity team at the Center for American Progress.