Asian Reporter web extra, October 25, 2020
Minority communities question election-year push by EPA
By John Flesher
The Associated Press
October 25, 2020
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) ó Theresa Landrum lives in
southwest Detroit, where residents complain frequently about
dirty air. Tree-shaded neighborhoods with schools, churches, and
parks lie on either side of an interstate highway and in the
shadow of a sprawling oil refinery that belches soot and fumes.
Landrum, a Black retiree from General Motors and a longtime
anti-pollution activist, wasnít impressed when Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) chief Andrew Wheeler recently pledged
$200,000 to promote "community health initiatives" in her
section of the city during his blitz of visits to battleground
states in the presidential election campaign.
"Is this a joke?" Landrum said. "It would take billions of
dollars to fix what is wrong with our environment here. All of a
sudden heís going to throw somebody a grain of sand in a
community where people have been poisoned for decades?"
Under President Donald Trump, the EPA has slashed support for
some programs and regulatory protections benefitting
disadvantaged communities. His budgets have proposed killing or
cutting funds to enforce regulations promoting environmental
justice ó fair treatment of racial minorities and low-income
residents who live near polluting industries and are
disproportionately exposed to contamination ó although congress
has continued most of the spending.
Now, the agency is portraying itself as a champion of such
communities ó an initiative skeptics contend is more about
wooing Black and Latino support as Trump seeks re-election than
protecting their air and water.
Wheelerís approach amounts to "window dressing" intended to
divert the attention of minority voters from the Trump
administrationís weak environmental protection record, said
Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of environmental justice,
climate, and community revitalization for the National Wildlife
Wheeler and other top EPA officials have fanned out
nationally in recent months, particularly in swing states such
as Michigan, holding news conferences to distribute grants and
tout the Trump administrationís record. During his latest
Michigan visit Friday, he announced $10.7 million to replace
lead service lines in disadvantaged communities in Grand Rapids
and Benton Harbor, and educate the public about dangers of
lead-tainted drinking water.
Trumpís EPA "has taken meaningful steps to improve the health
and environmental conditions for Americans everywhere,
especially those in low-income and underserved communities,"
Wheeler said September 30 in Traverse City, Michigan, where he
announced the $200,000 for Detroit.
The funds will help develop strategies for notifying
vulnerable residents more quickly about public health risks,
including the coronavirus, EPA said.
U.S. representative Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat whose district
includes the section of Detroit targeted for the spending,
described it as "an insulting drop in the bucket."
"These grants are a pitiful attempt to distract from the sky
high, mounting costs of the Trump EPAís prioritizing corporate
polluters over Black and brown communities," Tlaib said.
Nine other grants of the same amount were awarded this year
for neighborhood and tribal projects. One in Minneapolis will
provide education on lead paint dangers, asthma hazards, and use
of disinfectants to prevent coronavirus. Another will focus on
minimizing air and water pollution during wildfires, floods, and
other disasters at the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians
Reservation in California.
In a September speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of
EPAís founding, Wheeler said such efforts would be a focal point
of a second Trump term. The agency would promote
"community-driven environmentalism" built on restoring polluted
industrial sites, better treatment of drinking water tainted
with lead or chemicals, and other locally focused actions, he
The agency lost sight of its core mission before Trumpís
arrival, Wheeler said, focusing excessively on climate change to
impress "foreign capitals, over the interests of communities
within their own country."
But critics say the administrationís spending in those
communities is undercut by its rollback of environmental
regulations and weak enforcement against polluters.
"Itís like a doctor knowing what the root cause of a problem
is but saying weíre going to just deal with the symptoms and not
focus on a real cure," said Ali, a former EPA senior adviser who
worked on environmental justice for 24 years before resigning
less than two months after Trump took office. "If youíre not
willing to strengthen existing laws and make sure people are
protected, itís just sugar coating."
Academic studies have shown low-income and minority
communities suffer disproportionately from pollution, partly
because so many landfills, factories, and other sources are
located there. Wheeler acknowledged that in his speech. But he
said environmental regulation sometimes makes things worse by,
for example, making it hard to build new factories on
The Trump administration has hampered research identifying
unfair burdens on such communities while weakening standards for
pollutants that hit them especially hard, such as mercury,
ground-level ozone, and coal ash contaminants, the Union of
Concerned Scientists said in a 2019 report.
Wheeler says "environmental justice is an important concern
to the agency, but his agencyís actions arenít following through
with his promise," said Anita Desikan, a research analyst with
the nonprofit advocacy organization.
She also noted EPAís decision to cut back on enforcing key
regulations for polluting industries over the summer ó a move
Wheeler said was necessary to help businesses take coronavirus
Wheeler defended EPAís enforcement record during his
September appearance in Michigan. When proposing regulatory
rollbacks, he said, the agency has offered replacements that
would protect the environment in more cost-effective ways.
Southwest Detroit has been the subject of numerous air
pollution and public health studies. The 250-acre Marathon
Petroleum Co. refinery reached a proposed settlement with state
regulators this summer for 10 air quality violations. The area
also has a coal-fired power plant, steel mills, and other
An hourís drive north is Flint, a majority Black city of
nearly 100,000 still recovering from lead contamination of its
drinking water that prompted $100 million in federal assistance
for replacing service lines and other infrastructure. Karen
Weaver, who was mayor at the height of the crisis, said the
problem might have been avoided if governments had given due
regard to environmental justice.
"It seems late to be having this conversation, but of course
better late than never," Weaver said, adding that the city could
have used one of the $200,000 grants.
Landrum, the Detroit activist and a member of the Michigan
Advisory Council on Environmental Justice, said the Trump
administration must do more than provide modest grants and make
promises to earn credibility with environmentally degraded
"Environmental racism, systemic racism, exists in Detroit and
Michigan and throughout the U.S.," Landrum said. "But people
donít want to see."
Associated Press reporter Ellen Knickmeyer in Oklahoma City
contributed to this story.