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Under Trump, Environmental Justice Policy Ignores an Entire Section of the Population

An interview with Talia Buford on environmental justice policy.

Demonstrators demand action from the Republican presidential candidates about the water crisis in Flint outside the historic Fox Theater before the GOP presidential debate March 3, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Janine Jackson: The story of Flint, Michigan’s water is far from over. The state attorney general has brought involuntary manslaughter charges against five officials so far, for waiting a year to tell the largely African-American community about an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease, believed to have killed at least 12 people, and for deflecting scrutiny of the outbreak, which, along with lead levels that in some cases qualified the city’s water as toxic waste, was linked to the failure to take anti-corrosion measures when the city switched water sources. That was on the watch of Flint’s then — emergency manager Darnell Earley, who faces charges along with Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and others.

The case has issues. The AG says he wasn’t able to interview Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, for example, who Earley answered to, after all, but it’s still a perhaps unprecedented effort to hold state officials accountable for failing to protect the public.

That said, if systemic problems could be resolved by replacing individuals, we wouldn’t call them systemic. So what is needed to fix what’s going wrong, not just in Flint, but in communities around the country, and do we have the tools? Talia Buford has reported on the environment and civil rights for years. She now covers disparities in environmental impacts for ProPublica. She joins us now by phone from New York. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Talia Buford.

Talia Buford: Thank you.

I’m not cynical about these involuntary manslaughter charges. Whatever comes of them, they are a visible pushback on the idea that if lots of people are to blame, then no one is. And you have Nick Lyon allegedly saying, “Everyone has to die of something.” But if the takeaway from Flint is that government ought to do something to prevent this sort of thing, well, your most recent piece at ProPublica talks about what the federal government, anyway, has done and not done in recent years, and where it leaves us. Tell us a little bit about the history of environmental justice as a state concern.

It popped up during the civil rights movement, but it really took hold in the early ’80s, when citizens in North Carolina really pushed back on the state choosing to dump contaminated soil in a landfill near their homes. After that happened, the federal government started to take notice. There were some studies by EPA, and then there was a church group that also did a really instrumental study on just where toxic facilities were sited around the country.

And after that, President Bush — this is George H.W. Bush — at that point decided to implement the Office of Environmental Equity, which is today the Office of Environmental Justice. That was in ’92. Two years later, President Clinton gave us, I guess, the biggest win for the environmental justice community. Clinton signed an executive order in ’94 that required federal agencies to consider environmental justice in all of their policies. What he also did is he declared that environmental injustice was a violation of Title VI’s Civil Rights Act, which was huge, because it’s the same law that also sought to end segregation in schools. So this is a really powerful tool that advocates now had to use.

During the second Bush administration, however, a lot of those protections got rolled back. They were watered down, in some instances. The Title VI office was basically dormant for years, cases languished for a decade, and there just wasn’t any movement on the issue. And Democrats in Congress tried to push legislation on this issue forward, to really mandate and legislate some of the protections that Clinton had tried to implement through the executive order, and just really make them law and really crystallize them and give them some teeth. They weren’t able to even get a vote on any of those issues during the time they were in Congress, and, actually, there’s never been a vote on an environmental justice bill in Congress ever since this has become an issue.

Under Obama things got a lot better, but they still weren’t perfect. He was able to really focus on environmental justice during his administration. They cleared a backlog of civil rights complaints, they really elevated the idea of environmental justice, and the Office of Environmental Justice was really, really productive during that period. They were able to go out and give grants, and they had meetings and really talked to communities, and it really did a lot of education during that point.

But even then, there was still a lot more that could have been done. There could have been a stronger executive order that was put forward, to maybe have a federal environmental justice advisor at every federal agency, or we could have tried to push further to codify a lot of the things into law that the executive order professed, and those things were never done.

So there was a lot of progress, and then things just kind of stalled a little bit. And now the movement is at a point where a lot of the protections they had been relying on are possibly in retreat.

It sounds, as you tell it, it’s really a story of missed opportunities. There were moments when we had the wind at our back, when things were, as you say, suggested or presented as guidelines, but not really concretized, not really codified into law, so that when a different administration comes in, they turn out not to be so sturdy.

I want to say just one thing is very interesting, among many interesting things in the piece, is remembering a time when Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton were debating which of them was the better environmentalist. It’s kind of a weird thing to think about now.

Well, the fact that the Trump White House is looking to eliminate the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, that’s no surprise, and it fits with everything else. They’re doubling down on this ideological twist, if you will, that you note predates them, that comes really from Bush Jr., this effort to say, oh, sure, all people deserve protection from environmental harm.

“Yes, you do want to have protection for everyone. But by not focusing on the people who currently do not have those protections, you’re basically ensuring that they never will.”

TB: Right. And some of the people we talked to, they called it the “all lives mattering” of environmental justice. The idea that, yes, of course, everyone should not be subjected to intense environmental pollution, and, yes, you do want to have protection for everyone. But by not focusing on the people who currently do not have those protections, you’re basically ensuring that they never will.

So what happened is, when Bush decided to have this retreat, and really focus, more so, on just ensuring general environmental protection, federal investigators said, hey, this is not OK, this really moves us back into the era before this executive order, where we realized there was an issue and we realized this was something we needed to pay attention to, and not just ensure that there were protections for everyone, but that we needed to make sure that this specific group of people, that vulnerable people — people of color, people from different national origins and low-income people — are not disproportionately impacted.

And the current EPA hasn’t released a formal statement on environmental justice and where it fits in terms of their priorities, unless you count the proposed budget allocations as their priorities, and so we don’t know. But what EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has said is that he wants to ensure that all people have environmental protections, and he’s said it repeatedly, both in his congressional confirmation hearings and since then, and even through statements that we received from EPA. We tried to talk to Pruitt, and we tried to talk to other officials who might be able to tell us more about EPA’s environmental justice priorities and how they would be incorporating those ideals throughout the agency, and they declined to allow someone to talk to us, so.

Yeah. Well, I just want to cite the work of Paul Mohai from the University of Michigan, who researched the chicken-or-the-egg question in terms of environmental racism. You know, do polluting industries cause white people to move out, or people of color to move in (for lack of options, for example)? Or do companies locate polluting industries and hazardous waste facilities in minority and poor communities? And he found that it’s the latter, that existing minority communities are targeted. It’s not happenstance, and class has a lot to do with it, but it’s not class alone. There’s this irreducibility of racist impacts that it seems to me the whole environmental justice movement is about, and I guess I’m asking what one of the sources in your piece asked: Do we have to prove this all over again?

A lot of work has been done to tie a lot of zoning issues to environmental justice. Think about whatever community your listeners may have grown up in, think about where facilities were sited in your community. Were they in the more affluent areas, with tree-lined streets, and along the waterfront in a very affluent part of town? No, they were probably — maybe they’re on the waterfront, but they were on a part near a landfill and near, you know, a power plant and near dilapidated buildings or more industrial areas, and there are always homes still around there.

So you have to think about the people who are maybe not allowed to, either through restrictive covenants or other more blatant reasons, not allowed to move into some of those nicer places, some of those more affluent places, and had to settle or had to move and make their homes in communities in places that were less desirable, less affluent areas or generally less desirable areas. So that’s definitely a part of it.

And when you don’t take into account the history of the way that communities are formed or have been formed in our country, you’re in danger of ignoring an entire section of the population that needs that special attention, or needs, at least, that focused attention, in order to make sure that they aren’t being unduly harmed.

Yeah. I cited the Mohai research, because I think sometimes people think that environmental justice is about the feeling that some people are disproportionately impacted, or it’s just a sense that we have — and people should understand that there’s plenty of data to back it up.

I wanted to bring you back for just a moment. In the piece, you talk about one of the early beginnings of the environmental justice movement, in Afton, North Carolina, and you cite a pastor who was one of the people resisting a landfill there. And what he says is so important: He says, “Nobody thought people like us would make a fuss.” And so we really are talking about political voice.

And that seems to be what the Flint story is about, too. It’s not just the water; it’s the way the community was treated when they complained. It really is a story about political agency as well.

That’s a main tenet of environmental justice, that the communities that are impacted have a voice, their voices are listened to, and they’re taken into account before decisions are made. And I think that definitely, that’s what you saw in Flint. That was where you had people complaining for months and months and months, and they were literally being dismissed and told that they were wrong and that there was nothing wrong, even though we now know that it was the state and then the federal regulators who were doing something wrong.

Environmental justice, when I think about it, a lot of times I think of the idea of “not in my backyard.” There are certain communities that if something were to happen, they’re able to call their local congressman, or their city council member or the mayor, and get a direct line and complain, maybe because they have donated money for a campaign or maybe because they’re politically connected in some other way, and their concerns are listened to.

But there are other people who, whether they are minorities or whether they are low-income or whether they just don’t have a lot of political clout, are often cast aside, and their issues are not championed in the same way as someone who is a little bit more connected would be. And so when you have something “not in my backyard” from these more politically connected people, it still goes in someone’s backyard, and those backyards are often the people who are low-income, minority or speak a different language.

Finally, apparently there was a memo out of Snyder’s office in which someone said they think the Flint problem might disappear in the rearview, just kind of get just waved over. Well, if the EPA isn’t pushing it under Trump, that’s maybe a possibility. But media have a role to play here, especially when government agencies are not maybe giving the scrutiny or shining the light on things that they could. Right? I mean, media could be still pushing this story forward.

Sure, definitely. And even the Flint story came about because of media scrutiny. There was a single reporter who really hammered down on this and brought it to the national attention and was able to show that it was a public health crisis. And I think that, especially as the EPA shifts a lot of its enforcement responsibilities to the states, that it will be that much more incumbent on local reporters, and national reporters like myself, to really look at what’s happening at the state level and say, OK, is this actually living up to the promise of clean air and clean water that we are expecting from people in America?

We’ve been speaking with Talia Buford. She’s a reporter for ProPublica. They’re online at Talia Buford, thank you so much for joining us today on CounterSpin.

Thanks for having me.

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