“It’s unconscionable that the Trump administration is rolling back safeguards for human health during a public health crisis.”
Nearly 120,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 over the past four months, and while the Trump administration has largely left the public health response up to states, they have quietly accelerated their efforts in another area that actually threatens to worsen the pandemic: rolling back environmental rules that protect Americans from toxic pollutants and chemicals.
Since the pandemic reached a crisis point in mid-March, President Trump and the Environmental Protection Agency have:
- weakened fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles, which will result in more air pollution and higher emissions of greenhouse gases;
- weakened mercury release rules for oil and coal-fired power plants via a rule that could be used to justify further rollbacks of restrictions on pollutants emitted by fossil fuel companies;
- refused to strengthen standards for soot pollution, which has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease, lung damage, and premature death;
- allowed power plants and factories to decide for themselves if they’re able to meet the legal reporting requirements for air and water pollution during the pandemic and;
- allowed the fast tracking of major construction projects, including controversial pipelines and oil projects, during COVID-19, allowing them to sidestep environmental reviews mandated by law.
By weakening or gutting these rules, the Trump administration is all but guaranteeing increases in greenhouse gas emissions, a key driver of climate change.
Distressing signs of the worsening climate crisis continue to appear: On Saturday, a small town in Siberia, one of the coldest places on Earth, hit a record 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
Environmental experts say these actions also represent nothing less than a generous handout to polluters at the expense of regular Americans, particularly communities of color, who, because of poverty and systemic racism, are forced to live in poorer neighborhoods that are more heavily polluted. These same communities have also been disproportionately harmed by COVID-19—a disease that has proven devastating for people with underlying health conditions, particularly those with respiratory issues.
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“It’s unconscionable that the Trump administration is rolling back safeguards for human health during a public health crisis,” said Bill Magavern, policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air.
Matthew Davis, legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters, blasted the Trump administration for “using the coronavirus crisis as cover” and taking advantage of people’s attention being elsewhere during the pandemic to roll back environmental safeguards designed to address the climate crisis and carry out its “polluter agenda.”
“People aren’t paying attention as much as they might otherwise be, and for good reason. People have to focus on things like keeping healthy and safe and worrying about where their next paycheck is going to come, if they’re getting paychecks at all,” Davis said. “Weakening these environmental protections is threatening the health of the public and especially—disproportionately—those communities of color located near facilities that are getting these special deals from the Trump administration.”
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Research has shown that Black, Latino, and low-income Americans are disproportionately exposed to air and water pollution and are more likely than their white or wealthy counterparts to live near coal-fired power plants, toxic waste facilities, and other polluting facilities.
In enacting its agenda, the Trump administration is seeking to save polluters time and money, Davis said. He lambasted Trump for prioritizing corporations over people and for failing to help the most vulnerable Americans, adding: “It’s just horrible governing. It’s not even governing at all.”
“Instead of working to heal the nation and help protect the health of the nation in the middle of a global respiratory health pandemic that’s killing Black and Latinx communities at disproportionately high rates and threatening their job security and safety at higher rates as well, President Trump is instead focus on making things even worse and giving handouts to his corporate polluter friends,” Davis said.
The modified regulations are also particularly harmful to children, as studies have shown that mercury emissions can cause brain damage in children and that soot pollution can lead to bronchitis and asthma in kids. Children are also more likely to suffer the consequences of fossil fuel emissions, which include developmental impairment, asthma, and cancer.
In response to the rollbacks, Dominique Browning, co-founder and senior Director of Moms Clean Air Force, lambasted EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler for what she described as a “sinister campaign to undermine public health under cover of COVID-19.”
“Since the pandemic hit our shores, he has proposed an onslaught of rollbacks and freezes designed to satisfy polluting industries at the expense of our children’s health,” Browning said in a May statement. “This administration, with Wheeler at the helm of EPA, is certainly making it easier for people to get sick, and harder to get well.”
Davis believes that most, if not all of the rollbacks and rule changes will be overturned by the courts or be undone by a Democratically controlled Congress and White House. But so much damage has already been done, Davis noted.
“It’s just horrible,” he said of the decision to enact rollbacks while communities of color suffer from COVID-19 and police violence. “It’s horrifying that the Trump administration is taking advantage of that pain and taking advantage of that attention being directed elsewhere to make that pain worse.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with additional context.