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Abutting industry, poor minority communities most imperiled by dismantling clean air rules

Abutting industry, poor minority communities most imperiled by dismantling clean air rules

Picture of Georges Benjamin
[Photo by Mark Dixon via Flickr.]

Since 1963, Congress has passed several important measures to reduce the amount of toxic pollutants released into the air we breathe from motor vehicles and industrial sources. This series of laws, collectively called the Clean Air Act, was a national response to air pollution and recognized the federal government’s important role in ensuring our air is safe to breathe.

The Clean Air Act’s impact has been greatest on those who live closest to industrial centers and highways, where toxic emissions are highest. These “fence-line communities” typically are comprised of people of color and lower-income folks who experience systemic oppression.

Their perceived lack of political clout and value leaves these communities vulnerable to industries and roadways being located there. The Clean Air Act has prevented hundreds of thousands of premature deaths, heart attacks and asthma attacks that would have occurred, especially in these neighborhoods, without such regulations.

A new report from the NAACP reveals that more than 1 million African Americans live within a half mile of existing natural gas facilities and 6.7 million live in counties with oil refineries, whose emissions increase ground-level ozone — a key component of smog.

This harmful pollutant can cause asthma attacks, respiratory damage and even early death. Children and the elderly are most vulnerable to its effects. African American children in fence-line communities are hit especially hard: 138,000 asthma attacks and 101,000 lost school days each year.

Research just published in the American Journal of Public Health shows that people of color and those living in poverty also face greater exposure to particulate matter pollution than do other groups in the U.S. because they live in areas with more harmful emissions. High levels of particulates can cause lung and heart problems and shorten overall life expectancy.

Environmental regulations are particularly necessary for protecting the health of those who are most vulnerable. Alarmingly, under the guise of regulatory reform, the Trump administration has been moving aggressively to roll back health and safety protections across a number of federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency.

Deregulation efforts have taken aim at the Clean Air Act. The organization I lead, the American Public Health Association, fought last summer’s proposed suspension of an Obama-era rule to restrict harmful methane emissions from new oil and gas wells. And we joined with two other organizations to file suit against the EPA when it failed to meet an October 2017 deadline for identifying communities where smog levels exceed standards set by the Clean Air Act.

These aren’t the only threats to the Clean Air Act, though. The Trump administration has proposed repealing the Clean Power Plan, which, under the Clean Air Act, sets limits on carbon pollution and would also reduce other dangerous pollution from the nation’s power plants. According to the EPA's own analysis, repealing the Clean Power Plan will increase deadly sulfur dioxide pollution from power plants by 45 percent and cause up to 4,500 premature deaths each year that could be prevented simply by implementing the measure.

The situation in North Dakota illustrates the potential threat posed by deregulating clean air laws.

“North Dakota does not have state-level safeguards to curb methane pollution from oil and gas activities, which is why federal standards are vital to protecting public health and keeping families and children healthy,” the Dakota Resource Council notes in a 2017 report. Many of those affected by the health burdens of the oil and gas industry are Native Americans living near such facilities.

There are over 1,400 people living within a half mile of new wells, around 375 of whom are children under age 18. On Fort Berthold Reservation, 1,500 oil and gas wells have sprung up over the past decade.

The Dakota Resource Council watchdog group recorded “visible and concerning emissions,” known to cause harm to human health, at five sites near Williston, North Dakota, and the Fort Berthold Reservation. According to their report, “If the EPA (methane) rule is suspended, or even worse overturned, 11,000 North Dakotans, including vulnerable children, who live in counties in the threat radius will continue to be at risk for serious health impacts, including respiratory issues, cancer risk, and even death.”

The Clean Air Act requires that EPA adopt standards that protect public health from new sources of pollution and from hazardous air pollutants. We all have the right to breathe clean air, regardless of race or income. Environmental protections like the Clean Air Act are critically important — especially for those most vulnerable to the health effects of environmental hazards. Gutting these regulations would only worsen the poor health outcomes that already afflict America’s fence-line communities.

[Photo by Mark Dixon via Flickr.]

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