President Donald Trump plans this week to revise a federal law that poor and minority communities across the country have used for generations to delay or stop projects that threaten to pollute their neighborhoods – a law that he believes is good jobs, industry and public Work blocked unnecessarily.
The President's plan to streamline the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a fundamental environmental law signed with great enthusiasm by President Richard Nixon in 1970, would facilitate the construction of highways, pipelines, chemical plants, and other projects that pose environmental risks.
If the final version reflected a January proposal, the agencies would be forced to carry out even the most comprehensive environmental assessments within two years and limit the extent to which they could consider the full impact of a project on the climate.
Trump is expected to announce the changes in Atlanta on Wednesday to revitalize the economy amid the coronavirus pandemic.
However, the proposed changes also threaten the public, particularly the marginalized groups most affected by such projects, of their ability to influence decisions that could affect their health, so many activists.
"This is the epitome of environmental racism," said Angelo Logan, the 53-year-old campaign manager of the Los Angeles-based Moving Forward Network, which grew up in nearby trade surrounded by highways, train stations, and industrial facilities. "The working class, the communities of colors, will have to bear the brunt so that companies can make money with their fists."
African Americans live 75% more than non-Hispanic whites in communities alongside sources of pollution – which, according to studies, increases the risk of diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure, and other diseases.
Nixon signed the NEPA on January 1, 1970, saying that it was appropriate for politics to be its first official act of a new decade.
"The 1970s must be the years in which America pays its past debt by reclaiming the purity of its air, water, and living environment. It is literally now or never," said Nixon that day.
Weeks later, he devoted a significant portion of his State of the Union address to extensive environmental protection efforts, from soil conservation to combating the country's cars and trucks.
"We can no longer afford to consider air and water shared ownership that no one can abuse, regardless of the consequences," he said. "Instead, we should now start treating them as scarce resources that we can no longer contaminate than throwing garbage into our neighbour's yard. This requires extensive new regulations."
One of the regulations was the NEPA, according to which the federal government not only has to examine how a large-scale project can have an impact on the environment, but must also obtain public contributions before approvals are granted.
Environmentalists and community activists have consistently used this ability to challenge projects across the country in conjunction with the legally required comprehensive analysis, sometimes stopping or delaying them for years, which increases costs.
The White House declined to disclose details of the final revisions prior to the event on Wednesday, but spokesman Judd Deere said in an email: "The President will continue to take measures to facilitate the big American comeback and quality of life to improve all Americans. ""
A number of industries and some unions have worked to accelerate state approvals, which they believe has become unnecessarily burdensome. Although there are still public comments, Trump's revisions will limit how agencies can apply the law to speed up approvals.
"We want to make sure we do everything right, but it shouldn't take seven years to get a yes or no for a freeway project," said Marty Durbin, president of the US Chamber of Commerce's Global Energy Institute. "We have a broken process and we need to add more reasons to the process."
However, activists say NEPA has been instrumental in ensuring that communities have control over what is being built in their back yard.
For 15 years, Logan's group and others have been fighting a plan to expand Interstate 710, a major north-south freeway designed in the 1950s that connects Long Beach to central Los Angeles. Population and employment growth coupled with increased volume in Long Beach and Los Angeles ports have clogged the freeway, prompting state and local officials to try to add lanes in both directions.
A first suggestion would have added six additional lanes to the southern portion of the freeway, destroyed 660 houses, entered the Los Angeles River, and dramatically reduced truck traffic to neighborhoods that are mostly African American and Latino communities that already have increased soot content increases the air.
The highway map, which is now on the table in Southern California, does not provide for more than two additional lanes, but also includes bike paths and green spaces. Improving air quality and public health is one of the goals of the multi-billion dollar project. Activists developed and submitted their alternative plan during the legally permitted comment period and hired technical advisors to analyze the government's 8,000-page draft proposal.
"There was a shift in focus," said Logan. "Without the commitment and commitment of the community, it would currently only be a 14-lane highway."
In Kansas, activists are using federal law to influence the Flint Hill expansion project, which will add a large railroad track and seven railroad bridges, shift the paths of local streams, and tear apart the native Tallgrass prairie. BetA Lugo Martinez, organizer and co-director of CleanAirNow, said he and others fear that the resulting pollution from increasing rail traffic and habitat loss could harm residents of neighboring Belle Plaine.
One of the biggest changes the administration is proposing is to remove the legal obligation to review the cumulative impact of a project related to other sources of pollution in the region.
The revisions would also require that the most complex analyzes be completed within two years. And the original proposal would limit the consideration of climate change and state that "the effects should not be considered significant if they are distant, geographically distant or are the product of a long causal chain".
Based on this consideration, experts considering a planned coal mine or oil well would not have to consider whether burning these fossil fuels will contribute to climate change.
These revisions would make it easier for developers to get a definitive answer to whether a project is approved by the federal government and could limit the basis for legal challenges.
In recent months alone, NEPA-related lawsuits have temporarily stopped the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipeline and prompted the pipeline sponsors on the Atlantic coast to abandon their plans entirely. Groups have also used it to suspend massive timber sales in Tongass National Forest, Alaska and to question the construction of a new airport terminal at San Bernardino, California.
The Trump administration has insisted that it plans to maintain NEPA's core goals and avoid endless delays in rewarding projects.
"The consequences if the government is stuck are far-reaching," Interior Minister David Bernhardt told reporters earlier this year, referring to the lengthy process of approving new Native American Reservation Schools, modernizing National Park visitor centers, and responding to inquiries from ranchers permit to graze on public land. "The list goes on and on and on. The reality is that over time, the unnecessary bureaucracy has lowered expectations of American emergency and excellence. And that's going backwards."
Ann Navaro, a partner at the Bracewell law firm, who has worked as a top litigator and political advisor for more than 25 years, as well as the Department of State and Department of Justice and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said in an interview that the law should help policy makers, to make informed decisions, but that it has become unwieldy.
"NEPA had no intention of demanding endless amounts of paperwork and a kitchen sink approach for environmental testing," she said, adding that reports can sometimes be 500 or even 1,000 pages long. "It is debilitating and not useful for decision makers."
Based on their review of the proposed revisions, it is incorrect to say that the communities cannot weigh future projects. "The public will have the same opportunities it has now to get involved in the process and make comments," she said.
There are plenty of examples of legally bound projects. Durbin pointed to projects like the Purple Line $ 2 billion light rail between Montgomery and the counties of Prince George in Maryland, which was hampered by litigation and other issues. It took five years to complete the environmental impact assessment required by NEPA, and then the opponents persuaded a judge to suspend the project for ten months because the government's cost-benefit analysis overestimated the driver count for the 16-mile route.
Now the private company, which is building the Purple Line together with the state of Maryland, has stopped working and has led to construction delays and cost overruns. The project is expected to remove 17,000 vehicles from local roads when they are fully operational.
Durbin defended the project as a way for passage-dependent drivers to travel in a way that uses less carbon instead of having to take a trip that "takes three buses and several hours".
Environmentalists plan to challenge Trump's NEPA revisions in court once they are completed.
Kristen Boyles, an attorney at Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm, said in an interview that the revisions to the court could be vulnerable because the administration is seeking radical changes to a law without Congress taking action.
"It is so extensive that you are fundamentally changing the way the entire environmental assessment process works," she said. "It is this type of reach that makes it accessible to a judicial challenge."
The Washington Post's Darryl Fears contributed to this report.