EPA published a proposal in the Federal Register yesterday that critics described as an assault on minority communities coping with the public health legacy of structural racism.
The agency’s plan would mandate changes to the way future rules under the Clean Air Act would weigh the costs and benefits of climate and air pollution regulations.
It’s the first time EPA has attempted such a rulemaking, and critics say the goal is to saddle future administrations with an inflexible set of cost-benefit methodologies that discount benefits from cutting pollutants while stressing cost to industry.
The rule would also bar EPA from giving special consideration to individual communities that bear the brunt of environmental risks — frequently populations of color.
"The rule won’t take into account any benefit that can’t be monetized and quantified, including important things like the effect, say, of a mercury rule on tribal communities that rely on fish and wildlife that are contaminated with mercury or the effect of particulate matter on communities of color and disadvantaged folks who live near the power plants that are being controlled," said Ann Weeks, legal director of the Clean Air Task Force.
The Obama EPA did give special weight to the benefits that would accrue to specific communities when assessing whether a rule was cost-effective, she said. But this proposal seeks to make that impossible.
"You basically are tying your own hands, if you’re the agency, by saying this is the way you have to do things," she said.
EPA describes the draft rule as an effort to improve transparency by demanding a strict accounting of costs and benefits for all economically significant air quality and climate change rulemakings promulgated under the landmark environmental law.
But it raises questions about whether a future administration could count so-called co-benefits when drafting regulations. Co-benefits are reductions in pollutants that aren’t the rule’s primary target but that yield public health benefits that EPA has traditionally counted.
Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former energy lawyer, has long sought to sideline co-benefits, which industry sees as justifying rules whose costs outweigh true environmental benefits.
The co-benefit that has packed the greatest punch in past Clean Air Act rulemakings is fine particulate matter, or soot. Epidemiological studies are chock-full of data linking these tiny particles to pulmonary, respiratory and neurological ailments and death.
So demonstrating that a rule would reduce particulate matter adds to its value — a fact that even the Trump EPA used last year to show that its Affordable Clean Energy rule for power plant carbon dioxide was worth its costs.
‘History of racism’
The proposal comes as communities of color are experiencing some of the worst impacts of the coronavirus, while protests over racism and police brutality continue in cities across the country.
There’s evidence that elevated exposure to soot from highways, industrial facilities and incinerators that have for decades been built in predominantly black, Latino and Asian American communities are disproportionately harming the health of their residents.
"It’s all deeply ingrained in the history of racism and the history of civil rights," said Sofia Owen, a staff attorney with Alternatives for Community & Environment, an environmental justice group based in Boston. "The siting of these facilities — where our highways are, where incinerators are, where compressor stations or the bus depots and the train depots are — is communities of color and low-income communities."
The Union of Concerned Scientists released modeling last year showing that Asian Americans are, on average, exposed to particulate matter concentrations from vehicle tailpipes that are 34% higher compared with other Americans.
They weren’t alone. Soot exposure was 24% higher for African Americans and 23% higher for Latinos. White Americans are exposed to 14% less soot from tailpipes than the average American (Greenwire, June 27, 2019).
"It’s primarily the PM2.5 that is responsible for environmental damage and health damage in communities living near highways," said Maria Cecilia Pinto de Moura, a senior vehicles engineer with UCS, referring to particulate matter 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter. The science advocacy group is now doing similar modeling on proximity to coal-fired power plants by demographic group, she said.
The health impacts of PM2.5 exposure can be severe.
A 2017 study by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and other institutions found that incremental increases in soot exposure below the standards set by EPA can result in significantly more deaths among senior citizens. The study found that black people were three times more likely to die from soot exposure than other Americans.
"We know that when you inhale fine particulate matter, they penetrate very deep into your lungs, and they can actually get into your bloodstream, and they initiate a form of inflammation that can cause pneumonia and cardiovascular disease," said Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatistics at the School of Public Health and an author of the 2017 study.
Dominici also co-authored a recent study showing that counties with higher levels of particulate matter experienced more deaths related to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus (Greenwire, April 7).
There’s a link between particulate matter and acute respiratory distress syndrome, she said, which causes COVID-19-related deaths.
"If you’re living in a county and you’re breathing polluted air for a very long time, even absent COVID, we know that your lungs are inflamed," Dominici said. "After you contract COVID, your ability to respond to the inflammatory nature of COVID is severely compromised because your lungs already have inflammation."
The result is worse for black and Latino people who contract COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in April that 33% of those hospitalized with the disease were black, as were nearly a quarter of those who died. Eighteen percent of the U.S. population is black.
While racial minorities are more impacted by high soot levels, they’re also responsible for producing less of it.
A 2019 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that non-Hispanic whites consume the majority of the goods and services responsible for particulate matter. Black and Latino people on average are exposed to 56% and 63% more soot, respectively, than is linked to their consumption.
The same study estimated that soot caused 131,000 premature American deaths in 2015.
"The long tail of this is that particularly black Americans and Latinx communities have been discriminated against in this country, and because of their poverty, they are forced to live in neighborhoods that are less expensive and more polluted," said Aaron Bernstein, director of the Harvard Chan School’s Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment.
EPA’s cost-benefit exercises could consider that history of racial injustice when assessing whether a rule is warranted, he noted.
"If you clean up the air, there is a pretty good likelihood that we’re going to benefit people of color more. And should we in fact prioritize those actions because of historical and, frankly, present-day injustices?" he said. "That is a highly contentious arena right now, but it’s hard to ignore, given what’s going on."
The gap between soot exposure levels of white and nonwhite Americans has actually been shrinking in recent years.
A paper released in January that used satellite-based measurements to track air quality across the country found that disparities between soot levels in predominantly minority and white areas fell by nearly two-thirds between 2000 and 2015.
Reed Walker, an associate professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the authors of the study, said this was partly due to white people moving into cities and minorities heading to the suburbs.
But a much larger part of the story, he said, had to do with the Clean Air Act.
Particulate matter standards set under the law — current ones were implemented in 2005 — require counties that fail to meet National Ambient Air Quality Standards to take aggressive action to reach attainment.
"It just so happens that African Americans are overrepresented in these dirty areas," Walker said, noting that in the last 15 years, counties with large minority populations have reduced particulate matter more than predominantly white counties.
Still, research shows that soot can cause illness and death at levels below federal air quality standards. This year, EPA declined to tighten the standard despite public health advocates’ warnings that an update is long overdue.
And the proposed cost-benefit rule seems to be directed at making tougher rules harder to promulgate in the future.
"Any failure to tighten the standard is going to continue the disproportionate exposures faced by individuals in those communities," said Walker.
This story also appears in Greenwire.