Report: When the Trump Administration Sidelines Science, Underserved Communities Face the Worst Consequences

October 30, 2019 | 8:49 am
AP Photo/David Goldman
Anita Desikan
Senior Analyst

As a public health researcher and a woman of color, I am acutely aware that in the United States some people live in communities which are afforded more science-based protections, allowing them to breath cleaner air, drink cleaner water, eat more nutritious food, and work at safer workplaces. And some people live in communities which are not afforded these protections.

This situation is directly tied to long-standing injustices in public policies concerning race, ethnicity, and income. And the situation occurs despite the fact that the government is often required to enact and enforce science-based protections to keep all communities healthy and safe.

However, the Trump administration is worsening the problem. The administration has an extensive record of attacking science; at UCS we’ve documented over 120 attacks on science to date. By attacking and sidelining science, the Trump administration is making public policy decisions that consistently undermine public health safeguards and exacerbate long-standing inequities that place disenfranchised communities at risk of experiencing substantial harms.

Today we release a new report that documents the impacts that the Trump administration’s attacks on science are having on disenfranchised communities. We also highlight the actions that communities are taking to fight back against environmental injustice, and the ways that the public, scientists, and decisionmakers can aid communities in their efforts.

Exposed to more pollution

Communities are harmed by the Trump administration’s efforts to sideline science-based policies that protect us from pollution. By dismantling or failing to enforce environmental protections, the Trump administration is exacerbating the conditions that disproportionately burden underserved communities with pollution in the air and water.

In a new analysis, we also find that the Trump administration is failing to enforce science-based protections. Compared to the Bush and Obama administrations, the number of criminal cases against violators of environmental laws has dropped by 34 to 47 percent under the Trump administration.

The prosecution of entities violating environmental laws has decreased under the Trump administration as compared with the Bush and Obama administrations. Criminal prosecutions that resulted from environmental investigations were examined in the second and third fiscal year of presidency; the first year was not included to avoid overlap with the prior administration. Note: Years 2 and 3 of George W. Bush’s presidency correspond to 2002 and 2003; for Barack Obama, 2010 and 2011; for Donald Trump, 2018 and 2019. All years are fi scal years (October 1 to September 30).

Often environmental stressors occur in tandem such that the impacts are cumulative and result in greater health inequities. Communities living at the fenceline of industrial facilities now have to contend with actions by the Trump administration that are not only increasing exposure to industrial air pollution, but are also restricting the ability of government scientists to monitor the harms from air pollution and industrial groundwater contamination.

Programs dismantled that safeguard the health and safety of communities

Some federal programs were established to serve the needs of communities facing environmental justice issues and provide community members with more accessible ways to participate in the policymaking process. However, these federal programs—many of which are underpinned with strong scientific evidence of their effectiveness—are being compromised under the Trump administration in a way that harms communities and silences their voices. For example, new work requirements for SNAP (previously called “food stamps”) have thrown millions of people off these vital benefits.

In a new analysis, we also find that the Trump administration has decreased government grant funding to underserved communities from the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice. This funding has historically helped community-based organizations address environmental justice concerns. In comparison to the Bush and Obama administrations, the number of community grants issued by the Trump administration have fallen by 70 to 79 percent.

The EPA’s Environmental Justice Small Grants Program supports communities facing environmental justice concerns. Community-based organizations are awarded up to $30,000 to work on solutions to local environmental and public health issues. However, this grant program is being severely compromised under the Trump administration as compared with past administrations.

Data and research about communities halted or buried

The Trump administration is also making decisions that reduce public access to government data and science-based information. The impact of these actions will be especially felt by marginalized communities, as many environmental justice groups use federal datasets on environmental hazards to study whether there are inequities in health for marginalized communities.

When data collection and research is halted, there is no way to determine if there are problems that disproportionately affect disenfranchised communities. This means that communities will not be able to benefit from even the possibility that evidence-based policies will be enacted that can help them. Communities face serious consequences when this form of science-based policymaking is sidelined, such as underserved people being thrown off of Medicaid benefits, being denied medical information on reproductive services from their doctor, and being exposed to potentially more air pollution from industrial farms.

Taking a stand and fighting back

Everyone, no matter their social position, should benefit from science-based protections. However, disenfranchised communities typically have less influence on the policymaking process, including science-based decisionmaking. This can stem from a variety of reasons. Gerrymandering or voter ID laws can depress voter turnout; language, childcare, or transportation issues can prevent engagement in the policymaking process; corporations can drown out the voices of communities because they have more resources and access to decisionmakers. But the outcome is that communities are further impacted when science-based protections are dismantled.

However, communities are actively fighting back against this injustice. The Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.) is an organization that is standing up and advocating on the behalf of the communities living at the fenceline of petrochemical facilities around Houston, Texas. By keeping their neighbors updated about recent chemical accidents, the air quality outside their homes, and where to seek shelter, t.e.j.a.s. is combating the health inequities that affect Houston’s residents of color and low-income residents. The organization has also previously partnered with UCS to research the acute and chronic chemical exposures of Houston’s marginalized communities.

Clean Power Lake County is a community-driven coalition that is committed to securing environmental, economic, and racial justice in Lake County, Illinois, a low-income community composed of a large number of Spanish speakers and people of color. One of their primary goals is to fight for their community’s health and safety, including organizing their neighbors to stand up against the EPA’s lack of oversight of the residents’ exposure to cancer-causing ethylene oxide emissions from a nearby facility.

Community-level groups like t.e.j.a.s. and Clean Power Lake County should be given the resources and platform to ensure they can carry their message and improve the health and wellbeing of their neighborhoods.

We can aid communities in their efforts to fight back

As the Trump administration demonstrates the harmful impacts that can occur when science does not inform critical public policy decisions, it is more important than ever to support community efforts to advocate for informed protections that work to ensure that residents live in healthy, clean and safe neighborhoods.

Scientists can be allies during this process by partnering with community groups and using science as a tool to promote equity and justice. When scientists work as equitable partners and allies to community members, a rich exchange of information can result. Scientists can impart their technical skills and help communities understand environmental and public health datasets, a skill that could prove useful in their advocacy efforts. Community members also can aid scientists in their efforts at studying environmental health hazards in impacted communities, thereby making the study more equitable and community-focused.

Decisionmakers at the local and state level and Congress have the power to enact science-based policies that can halt and repair the damage experienced by marginalized communities. We should let our elected officials know that we care about the health and safety of impacted communities. We should call on our elected officials to enact policies that will codify environmental justice principles and ensure that these policies are guided by the input of communities. And in this way we can support the efforts of disenfranchised communities in their fight to reverse the damages caused by the federal government’s efforts to sideline science.