Part 2

Peer Reviews

Pursuing a Toxic Agenda: Environmental Injustice in the Early Trump Administration

Dr. Jill Harrison, Dr. Ellen Kohl

EDGI invited two reviewers to provide feedback on drafts of this report. The report was then revised, as outlined in bold below, based on their feedback.

Reviewer: Dr. Jill Harrison

Jill Harrison is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her research focuses on environmental sociology, sociology of agriculture and food systems, environmental justice, political theories of justice, and immigration politics. She has used her research on political conflict over agricultural pesticide poisonings in California, recent escalations in immigration enforcement in rural Wisconsin, and government agencies environmental justice efforts to identify and explain the persistence of environmental inequalities and workplace inequalities. She published the award-winning Pesticide Drift and the Pursuit of Environmental Justice(2011) with MIT Press.

Harrison’s Review

I appreciate this opportunity to read and comment on the EDGI report, “Pursuing a Toxic Agenda: Environmental Justice in the First 100 Days.” This report is important, as it uniquely addresses how the Trump Administration is undermining not just the EPA in general – as journalists have rightly criticized – but also environmental inequalities in particular, to which the press has devoted very little attention. The content is well substantiated, and clearly a lot of work went into preparing this report.

Key issues:

This excellent suggestion from Dr. Harrison, we refocused the report to detail how the Trump administration’s actions are poised to extend already palpable and serious environmental injustices. We emphasize that the environmental justice mandate for the EPA and other federal agencies put into place by executive order 12898 in 1992 has remained a largely “unfulfilled promise” in the section “What is Environmental Justice?”. However, we emphasize in that section – and throughout the report – that the relatively small gains made towards meaningfully acknowledging environmental inequality over the years have been hampered by the incoming administration’s actions. These include placing politically vulnerable communities in closer proximity to health and environmental risks, weakening environmental protections at the federal level for communities and curtailing the federal data infrastructure that would allow communities to bring forward new instances and address old instances of environmental inequality.

Instead of making a contemporary example of the Flint Water Crisis, the report now engages with the recent destruction Hurricane Harvey unleashed on Houston to show that environmental inequality has been a persistent issue that will cause starker divides as the new administration has already taken several steps to undermine environmental justice protections not only in Houston, but across the country.

This point was well-taken and as a result we strengthened our focus on environmental inequalities experienced by communities. We fleshed out each executive action we discuss to include ways in which the now-imperiled rules, programs and datasets are intended to – or actually do– help communities address issues of environmental injustice. In each of these, we highlight the struggles communities have faced in the course of these battles for health and environmental equality, illustrating that even in previous times, even modest gains around environmental justice have been hard-won. In the conclusion we offer ways in which different organizations, institutions, civil rights groups and local governments can more meaningfully work towards addressing and remedying environmental inequities.

The following points were all addressed in a comprehensive re-write and copyedit. The page numbers indicated here no longer correlate to the same issues in the current document. Appendices mentioned here were removed.

Specific points:

Reviewer: Dr. Ellen Kohl

Dr. Ellen Kohl is Assistant Professor of Environmental Sciences at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Dr. Kohl examines how compounding socio- spatial processes, developed and perpetuated by urban and environmental policies, contribute to places of persistent injustice in the United States. She is particularly interested in how these processes impact marginalized communities and the social movement strategies these communities employ to create positive change in their communities.

Kohl’s Review

Overall, this paper presented an interesting and compelling engagement with the changes to EPA’s approach to environmental justice under the Trump administration. The authors did a good job of surveying a wide array of actions by the Trump administration to capture the scope of the impacts of a Pruitt EPA for environmental justice communities. Below are recommendations to strengthen the paper.

We took this suggestion seriously and re-framed the entire report to focus on the EPA’s largely unfulfilled promise regarding environmental justice in the nearly 25 years since the Office of Environmental Justice was established. We cited Konisky’s 2015 piece along with the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights 2016 report to highlight that the OEJ had a backlog of nearly 300 unaddressed Title VI complaints. This, along with the ongoing EPA budget issues specifically related to environmental justice, such as the hazardous substances superfund account, allows us to argue that even with the modest gains made in the Obama administration, there are still serious, long-standing problems that should be addressed through more funding and more attention to EJ at the federal level to make real steps towards ameliorating environmental injustices. This critical stance enables us to more compellingly demonstrate how the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts for the EPA and various orders set by Trump himself and EPA administrator Scott Pruitt are poised to further extend environmental injustice.

We added the entire section on the Toxics Release Index (TRI) following this suggestion, and use it as a case to show that while the TRI was seen as an important step in providing data to the public through the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-know Act (EPCRA) so that communities can mobilize data to hold industry accountable, the TRI is extremely flawed because it is self reported by industry, and reporting standards change yearly. Sections on the ATSDR and CDC were cut in favor of addressing the TRI.

In the section on environmental data justice we highlight the government’s uncritical use of data self reported by industry in making policy, but rarely acknowledge community science and citizen gathered data as valid enough to be considered in policy development. This section also suggests ways to collect, use and manage data as a productive tool for environmental justice that takes seriously the fact that data can be a technocratic tool for neoliberal governance that puts the onus on communities to protect themselves.

We highlight the proposed elimination of the office of environmental justice in the introduction on page 6. The section “What is Environmental Justice?” tells the story of how the OEJ came to be and why it is important in the efforts to combat disproportionate health and environmental risk being placed on politically vulnerable communities at the end of that section, we emphasize what elimination of the OEJ is emblematic for the reversals of community protection under Trump. To drive this point home, we include an interview with Mustafa Ali former head of the EPA’s OEJ to emphasize the importance of the changes for the OEJ both in regard to budget cuts and his suggestions for what should be done at the federal level to protect the environmental justice mandate.

As mentioned above, we changed the focus of the report to underscore that EJ at the federal level has been a largely unfulfilled promise and that under the Trump administration, it appears as though it will be even more severely diminished. We expanded the conclusion to include suggestions to combat the systematic chipping away of protections for communities by offering ways of thinking how to resist this at federal levels, at local, state and regional levels and finally we advance the concept of Environmental Data Justice which takes into consideration that they ways disproportionate risk to communities is documented to influence policy happens at the level of data. As this is true we suggest organizations interrogate the political nature of the data that is gathered, stored, used and accepted in policy and decision-making and attempt to meaningfully include communities in the process of data to ensure more equitable and just forms of environmental data practices.

Suggested readings:

Holifield, Ryan. 2004. Neoliberalism and environmental justice in the United States environmental protection agency: Translating policy into managerial practice in hazardous waste remediation. Geoforum 35 (3), 285-297.

Konisky, David. ed. 2015. Failed Promises: Evaluating the Federal Government’s Response to Environmental Justice, MIT Press

Spence, Lester K. 2012. The neoliberal turn in Black politics. Souls 14 (3-4), 139-159

Konisky is now cited in the report. We reviewed the Holifield and Spence but did not draw significantly from them at this time.