House boats lie near Interstate 5 and industrial facilities in the Columbia Slough of Portland, Oregon. This picture was taken in the 1970's, but the community has been plagued with pollution since the early 20th century. David Falconer/EPA

Congress Lifts Voices of Communities Affected by Trump Administration’s Attacks on Science

, Research scientist | October 30, 2019, 8:48 am EST
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On October 30th, the United for Climate and Environmental Justice Task Force and House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ-3) will host a briefing that will lift the voices of underserved communities who have long been affected by the government’s sidelining of science. Led by Congressman Don McEachin (D-VA-4), Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-WA-7), and Congresswoman Nanette Barragán (D-CA-44), task force members will hear from several leaders of grassroots organizations who have led the fight against injustices aimed at low-income communities, communities of color, and Indigenous communities. We will hear stories of how underserved communities have dealt with air and water pollution, been left out of decision-making processes, or have wondered how they will live day-to-day as the government sidelines science and undermines programs specifically intended to provide support to communities harmed first and worst.

The Trump administration is exacerbating community harms

A new UCS report will be discussed at Congress’s briefing. Among the results reported, we find that the Trump administration has exacerbated health and safety risks to overburdened communities by sidelining science in policy decisions. However, the issues discussed in the report are not unique to the Trump administration. “There is no single culprit nor any one government action that can explain the long-term injustices that underserved communities have faced,” the report reads. “Rather, marginalized communities have experienced and continue to experience such inequities as a result of multiple factors and many interwoven policies and ideas.”

History gives us insight into how racial, economic, and social inequities occur in communities like Commerce, California or Portland, Oregon communities living near the Columbia slough, for example. Both underserved communities have experienced long-standing health disparities due to poor policy decisions that failed to consider the best available science. The work of scientists has shown that demographics alone are not able to explain why these areas have such a high concentration of industrial facilities. Rather, evidence leads us to poor siting policies and law makers that failed to listen to communities.

But make no mistake, our analysis also shows that the Trump administration has greatly exacerbated these inequities. We have now documented over 120 times that the Trump administration has attacked science in government decisions. And many of these attacks disproportionately harm already overburdened and politically marginalized communities. No political administration, by our count, has ever attacked science-based decisions at such an unprecedented rate.

Here’s how communities are being harmed

While our report and analyses provide a framework for how the administration is harming communities by sidelining science, it is best to hear from the communities themselves. Therefore, we partnered with several community groups to highlight their experiences and the work they’re doing to push back against the administration’s attacks on science. The health and safety risks that these groups discuss in their stories highlights why it is so important for Congress to listen to community members and help alleviate such disproportionate impacts.

One community group that we worked with, Clean Power Lake County, describes how the community of Lake County, Illinois (a majority low-income community, with a large number of Spanish speakers and people of color) is being ignored by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as they confront pollution from a chemical known as “ethylene oxide.” Ethylene oxide is a colorless gas that has a sweet, ether-like odor and is often used to sterilize equipment, such as medical tools. In 2016, the EPA classified the gas as cancer-causing if inhaled. And then in 2018, the EPA released a report noting that people exposed for long amounts of time to the chemical had increased risks of developing cancer. You can likely imagine the fear you might have if you found out you lived near a facility that uses ethylene oxide. That’s the fear that residents of Lake County, Illinois experience when the EPA released their 2018 report, and it is why residents joined with “Clean Power Lake County” to fight and find solutions to their community’s health and safety issues.

But Lake County, Illinois is not the only underserved community whose health and safety is at-risk due to the Trump administration’s anti-science decisions. We also partnered with Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.) who serve communities in Houston, Texas. In Houston, communities are being exposed to hazardous chemicals on a daily basis and this risk is exacerbated during floods and when chemical facilities catch on fire. The community group states in the report, “Actions by the Trump administration, coupled with a significant increase in petrochemical feedstock plastic production and expansions along the Houston ship channel and the impacts of climate change, present new challenges that threaten communities’ progress.” And t.e.j.a.s. recounts a story in which a chemical facility in Crosby, Texas erupted in flames leaving the air of fenceline communities polluted, killing one person and injuring two others. The lives of people are literally being lost as a result of these environmental hazards.

And that’s why we must listen

It is worth saying again—these are long-standing issues that have affected underserved communities for decades. Yes, the Trump administration is making things worse, but we all must work to push back against inequitable policy. And the first step is to listen to the communities themselves.

What I hope comes out of tomorrow’s briefing is a chance for the stories of underserved communities to be heard and for solutions to be planned. A portion of the solution includes allowing the government to rely on science to inform decisions, because that’s how we create policies that are most effective at alleviating these issues. We’ve seen the consequences and harms to people’s health and safety when science is left behind. Additionally, scientists need to step up and help address these injustices. We can provide support to underserved communities and grassroot organizations who may need scientific expertise.

Our message should be loud and clear: this is not right, this is not what equal opportunity for all looks like, and the scientific community will not sit by idly and watch such injustices happen. We need underserved communities to know now more than ever—science has your back.

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