Communities Fighting for Environmental Justice Face Additional Threats as Trump Administration Attacks Science

Long-Standing Inequities Heightened by Agencies Burying Data, Weakening Enforcement

Published Oct 29, 2019

Washington (October 30, 2019)—Communities of color, low-income communities and Indigenous groups often face a greater threat from environmental problems—and under the Trump administration, this inequity is accelerating, according to the report “Abandoned Science, Broken Promises” released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The report found that across the administration, there have been dramatic decreases in environmental enforcement, community grant allocation, collection and public distribution of data, and the development of science-based public health protections, putting extra pressure on the most at-risk communities.

UCS’ Center for Science and Democracy worked with grassroots environmental justice organizations to evaluate the impacts of the Trump administration’s actions. The resulting report shows that efforts to undermine public input and science in the policy process pose an added challenge for communities fighting against environmental injustice.

Among the report’s findings:

  • In the second and third year of the Trump administration, the number of criminal enforcement cases concluded under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act fell by more than a third compared to the same time frame in the Bush and Obama administrations. The EPA also decreased financial penalties for polluters and reduced the number of inspectors working on these cases.
  • Grants from the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice have fallen by 70 percent from the Obama administration and 79 percent from the Bush administration, depriving community groups of a critical tool to tackle environmental issues.
  • The new analysis shows that communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately exposed to PFAS contamination, and the White House’s attempts to bury scientific information about PFAS chemicals is especially dangerous to those communities.

“Science can, and should, be a tool for justice, but the Trump administration is pushing science and the public interest out of the process,” said Anita Desikan, a research analyst at UCS and the lead author of the report. “That heightens the health disparities that communities are already struggling with. We can’t understand and solve the problems that affect people’s health and safety if we aren’t considering the evidence.”

The Trump administration has sidelined science and community concerns on a wide variety of issues, including pesticide use, workplace conditions, chemical-plant safety, air pollution, and access to healthy food.

“This new report describes what people living in environmental justice communities have known for decades,” said Michele Roberts, the national co-coordinator of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance. “Today, the consequences of the Trump administration’s cuts and roll backs are resulting in more pollution in our air, more poison in our water, and actions that silence the voices of those most impacted and harmed by industrial contamination. Environmental justice and legacy communities are fighting back with resolve, but seeing this lengthy catalog of transgressions against communities of color and the poor will shock even the most jaded. Beyond pollution, the Trump administration is working to erase the very science that provides us with understanding and the proof to change the systems which are harming us.”

Actions taken by the Trump administration have created a new sense of urgency for community groups and advocates who have been working for years to address environmental injustices. As their communities come under greater pressure, grassroots groups are stepping up their efforts to speak out.

“Communities across the nation, including ours, are under the threat of an expanding industry that also comes linked to increasing impacts,” said Yvette Arellano, policy researcher and grassroots advocate for the Houston-based group Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services. “Everyone, regardless of race, income, religion, legal status, gender and more have the right to live in a clean environment. Barriers to information give individuals a misunderstanding that they are living in safe environments. Barriers to data collection and access compromise our communities’ ability to make the best decisions for our future. It is vital that community voices be heard at the decision-making table; these are the daily decisions that can drastically alter the outcomes for generations to come. The scientific integrity of information and of the policies that safeguard our already-overburdened community is necessary for our survival. You don’t have to lose a child, mother or friend to understand our fight for life.”

UCS has documented more than 120 incidents in which the Trump administration has attacked science. Many of these decisions have had a direct impact on low-income communities, communities of color and Indigenous groups. Among the infractions: The administration has stopped collecting large animal feeding operations’ emissions data, sidelined science advice on the health impacts of the pesticide chlorpyrifos; cancelled a study on the health impacts of mountaintop removal mining, and undermined federal rules that require chemical facilities to inform nearby communities about exposure risks.

“We know that communities of color, including the Latinx community, are hit first and worst by the impacts of climate change, and these same frontline communities have been leading the battles for environmental justice in the face of increased attacks from this administration,” said Mark Magana, president and CEO of Green Latinos. “This administration's blatant dismantling of key EPA climate and clean air protections and disregard for climate science, as the UCS report ‘Abandoned Science, Broken Promises’ outlines, have compromised the existing safeguards protecting the health of Latinx communities and add yet another challenge to already overburdened families. We hope that lawmakers and administration officials will heed the findings of this important report and hear clearly the recommendations. The time to act is now—our Latinx community and other vulnerable communities cannot afford to wait.”

The new report points to the need for greater community voices in the policymaking process, and the importance of passing new laws to protect scientific integrity and prioritize environmental justice. It also calls on the scientific community to partner with environmental justice groups to help illustrate with data the challenges these groups face.

“These problems didn’t begin with President Trump, but we’re now seeing a federal government going in exactly the wrong direction,” said Desikan. “Federal safeguards are supposed to protect everyone from harm, especially the most vulnerable. Instead we’re seeing communities that are already marginalized facing burgeoning threats. The federal government must stop sidelining the science and the concerns of impacted communities.”