When the EPA was established in 1970 by Richard Nixon, there was no mandate to examine why toxic landfills were more often placed near low-income, Black, Latino, immigrant, and Native American communities than in more affluent, white neighborhoods. Nor was there much recognition that communities closer to toxic landfills, refineries, and industrial plants often experienced higher rates of toxics-related illnesses, like cancer and asthma.
Yet these phenomena were palpable to those living in affected communities. In the 1970s and 80s, local anti-toxics campaigns joined forces with seasoned activists from the civil rights movement, labor unions, and with public health professionals and scientists, drawing attention to the unevenly distributed impacts of toxic pollution, and forming what we now recognize as the environmental justice movement.
The new administration has mounted a swift and concerted attack on the federal capacity and duty to research, monitor, and regulate harmful pollutants that disproportionately affect women, children, low-income communities, and communities of color. Two examples demonstrate the potential consequences: overturning the ban on chlorpyrifos, and a variety of actions that reduce collection of and public access to the data on which environmental justice claims depend.
Overturning the ban on chlorpyrifos
Chlorpyrifos is a commonly used pesticide. EPA scientists found a link between neurological disorders, memory decline and learning disabilities in children exposed to chlorpyrifos through diet, and recommended in 2015 that the pesticide be banned from agricultural use because of the risks it posed to children’s developing brains.
Over 73% of farmworkers in the U.S. work with vegetables, fruits and nuts, and other specialty crops on which chlorpyrifos is often used. These agricultural workers are predominantly immigrants from Mexico and Central America, living under the poverty line and in close proximity to the fields they tend. A series of studies in the 1990s and 2000s found that concentrations of chlorpyrifos were elevated in agricultural workers’ homes more than ¼ mile from farmland, and chlorpyrifos residues were detected on work boots and hands of many agricultural worker families but not on nearby non-agricultural families.
In March 2017, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt publicly rejected the scientific findings from his agency’s own scientists and overturned the chlorpyrifos ban, demonstrating the Trump administration’s disregard for the wellbeing of immigrant and minority populations. Farmworker families could be impacted for generations through exposure to these and other harmful pesticides.
Limiting collection of and access to environmental data
Because inequitable risk to systematically disadvantaged communities must be empirically proven, publicly available data on toxic emissions and health issues are crucial to environmental justice work. The Trump administration has already taken a number of actions that limit the collection and accessibility of data necessary to make arguments about environmental injustices that persist through time in particular communities.
Workers, especially those laboring in facilities that refine, store or manufacture with toxic chemicals, bear inequitable risk. The Trump administration has sought to curb requirements and publicity about workplace risks, injuries and deaths. For example, President Trump signed off on a congressional repeal of the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule, which required applicants for governmental contracts to disclose violations of labor laws, including those protecting safety and health. Without the data provided by this rule, federal funds can now support companies with the worst worker rights and protection records. President Trump also approved the congressional repeal of a rule formalizing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) long-standing practice of requiring businesses to keep a minimum of five years of records on occupational injuries and accidents. While five years of record-keeping had illuminated persistent patterns of danger and pointed to more effective solutions, now only six months of records are required. This change makes it nearly impossible for OSHA to effectively identify ongoing workplace conditions that are unsafe or even life-threatening.
Another example is the administration’s proposed near elimination of the Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS, a program that provides toxicological assessments of environmental contaminants. The IRIS database provides important information for communities located near plants and industrial sites that produce toxic waste, both to promote awareness of the issues and safety procedures and as a basis for advocacy. These communities, such as Hinkley, CA, where Erin Brockovich investigated Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s dumping of hexavalent chromium into the local water supply, are disproportionately low income.
Responding to Trump: Developing environmental data justice
Data is not inherently good. It can be used to produce ignorance and doubt, as in the tactics employed by the tobacco industry and climate change deniers. It can also be used to oppressive ends, as in the administration’s collection of information on voter fraud, a phenomenon that is widely dismissed as non-existent by experts across the political spectrum. Further, even the data collection infrastructure in place under the Obama administration failed to address many environmental injustices, such as the lead pollution in Flint, MI. Thus we would argue that promoting environmental data justice is not simply about better protecting existing data, but also about rethinking the questions we ask, the data we collect, and who gathers it in order to be sure environmental regulation protects all of us.