Wendi C. Thomas: The dismantling of the EPA should really worry people of color

It matters because so many of us often live near toxic facilities.

Wendi C. Thomas, The Undefeated | 3/16/2017, 10:56 a.m.
It matters because so many of us often live near toxic facilities.
Wendi C. Thomas writes on the perils of dismantling the EPA (Photos: Courtesy of Butler University/TheUndefeated.com. Illustration by Lee Eric Smith)

The following first appeared on ESPN's TheUndefeated.com. Memphis native Wendi C. Thomas is a 2016 Harvard Nieman fellow, a senior writing fellow for the Center for Community Change and a freelance journalist. In April, she launches MLK50, an online storytelling project about economic inequality in Memphis. She hopes Dr. King would be proud..

Here’s the proof that presidential candidate Donald Trump was serious when he promised to leave only “little tidbits” of the Environmental Protection Agency left if he were to be elected. A White House budget proposal calls for a 25 percent cut to the EPA’s $8 billion budget and 20 percent fewer staffers.

The EPA’s environmental justice office faces a 78 percent budget cut, from $6.7 million to $1.5 million. In response, and not surprisingly, the head of the EPA’s environmental justice office, Mustafa Ali, resigned on Thursday. This is something communities of color already feeling besieged by proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act and the fight over the future of public education, unfortunately, also need to pay close attention to as well — their lives may well depend on it.

“In general, the environment gets short shrift,” said Jacqui Patterson, director of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program. That’s a mistake, Patterson said, because “climate justice issues intersect with other basic civil rights issues … Because there are so many assaults on our communities, [environmental justice] has to be contextualized within those assaults.” Let Patterson break it down. Fifty-six percent of white Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. That number rises to 68 percent when it’s African-Americans. Meanwhile, every year, those plants release more than 5 billion pounds of pollution into streams and rivers.

Pollutants that include lead. Lead poisoning causes brain damage, which interferes with learning, making it tough for children to stay on track in school. “If you’re not on grade level by third grade, you’re more likely to be headed to the school-to-prison pipeline,” Patterson said. On top of that, the property values of homes near toxic facilities, such as incinerators or landfills, are on average 15 percent lower than homes elsewhere, Patterson points out. And since property taxes fund public education – well, the connections become clear — a less robust public education system in exactly the areas that can least afford it.

Or consider this intersection of race, class, gender and geography: black female-headed households in Gulfport, Mississippi. “The [home] insurance rates there have quadrupled because of the storms that have come through that area,” Patterson said. If you don’t have much wealth – and the median net worth for single black women is $100 – then you’re “the least able to handle that extreme shock and most likely to become housing-insecure,” she said.

Did you know the EPA has a civil rights division? You’re excused if you didn’t – because it doesn’t literally doesn’t do anything. “EPA’s Office of Civil Rights has never made a formal finding of discrimination and has never denied or withdrawn financial assistance from a recipient in its entire history, and has no mandate to demand accountability within the EPA,” wrote the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in a scathing 2016 report. The commission recommended that the EPA add employees to clear up the backlog of complaints filed under Title VI of 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin. A recommendation destined to go unfulfilled as the president has now issued a federal hiring freeze.