Minorities Face Greatest Threat From Pollution

Posted April 20, 2005 at 2:43pm

President Bush’s Clear Skies Initiative and the Republican energy bill have been met with cheers from the coal, oil and energy industries and by dismay from clean air and public health advocates. In minority and underserved communities, these two proposals have rightfully been met with resistance and grave concern, as they are direct assaults on the health and well-being of low-income and minority communities.

For decades, minority and underserved communities have been forced to live in close proximity to industrial zones, power plants and toxic waste sites. 5.5 million Latinos live within 10 miles of a coal powered plant, and 68 percent of all African Americans in the United States live within 30 miles of a coal powered plant, the distance within which the health impacts are most acute. More than 70 percent of all African Americans and Latinos live in counties that violate federal air pollution standards, compared to 58 percent of whites.

These communities are victims of circumstance — not choice. Tragically, these circumstances have manifested into real health concerns and illnesses for those living in these areas.

In communities such as the South Bronx, Latinos are nearly 2.5 times more likely to develop asthma than whites. Nationwide, African Americans are rushed to the emergency room with asthma attacks three times as often as whites, and African Americans are also more than twice as likely to die from asthma as whites.

Despite the obvious and documented health risks posed by coal and other existing plants, President Bush’s Clear Skies Initiative creates new loopholes for just about every industrial air polluter. Specifically, the president’s proposal permits an increase in nitrogen oxide emissions by 68 percent and more than doubles sulfur dioxide emissions through 2018. It eliminates states’ rights to pursue polluters and revokes local authority to require emission limits of new sources in areas that are out of attainment. It also revises the New Source Review process, delaying the requirement that power plants achieve a safe air standard from 2010 to between 2015 and 2022.

The health “protections” in Clear Skies place the health of millions of Americans at greater risk for the better part of the next two decades. As a result of Clear Skies, there are likely to be 14,000 more lost days of work and 175 more cases of bronchitis in Los Angeles County, 574 heart attacks in Cook County, Ill., and 160 more people suffering from asthma in Franklin County, Ohio, just to name a few.

The Learning Disabilities Association of America, the National Education Association and the Arc of the United States identified coal-fired plants as the nation’s largest uncontrolled source of mercury, and named mercury pollution as one of the “greatest threats facing developing fetuses, infants, and young children.” Mercury can lead to delays in mental development, increases in learning disabilities, and deficits in language, motor function, attention and memory. Nevertheless, the president has proposed permitting mercury emissions from coal plants at a level three times higher than current law. Current law, if enforced, is far better than this.

Chalk it up to ignorance, apathy or major political contributions, but after four years in office, the Bush administration has made it clear that it has no desire to hold polluters accountable and force them to consider the full health and environmental ramifications of their actions, particularly in underserved communities.

This neglect isn’t limited to the president’s Clear Skies Initiative. Under the recently considered House energy bill, energy companies are not required to consider the socioeconomic conditions of the community in which new or existing plants will be, or are, located. This inaction is downright shameful. Any responsible long-term energy plan for the United States must include protections for the health all Americans.

In 1995, then-President Bill Clinton established the Office of Environmental Justice within the EPA to provide underserved communities with a mechanism by which they could seek recourse for inequitable treatment that they may have received due to poor energy and environmental policy. Environmental justice was becoming a priority.

In stark contrast, President Bush has sought to systematically dismantle the EPA. He has proposed cutting funding by 33 percent for environmental justice programs and scaled back remaining programs. The president has refused to provide guidance for the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, and he is now considering removing environmental justice policy considerations from activities at EPA altogether. How can the EPA protect America’s most vulnerable from air pollution and environmental injustices if the president refuses provide the necessary resources?

Together we have fought to protect low-income and minority communities from these environmental injustices. We have fought to increase funding for the EPA’s environmental justice efforts and to fight easing siting restrictions on refineries in low-income communities. We reject Bush’s actions and his empty promises to protect all communities. It is the responsibility of our government to protect all communities — not just those who can afford to protect themselves.

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) is a senior member of the Intelligence and Rules committees. Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.) is the ranking member on the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on environment and hazardous materials and chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ health task force.