EPA’s Recent Rollbacks Raise Public Health Worries for Vulnerable Americans

People of color already face more pollution linked to a higher risk of dying from COVID-19, and now the government is easing air-quality regulations.

It would have been a controversial move under any circumstances, but an announcement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week looked especially problematic given the context: During an outbreak of a disease that attacks people’s ability to breathe and has killed more than 45,000 Americans, the agency finalized a rule that says it’s no longer “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants.

In a press release announcing the rule, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler called it “another example of the EPA, under the Trump Administration, following the law while making reasonable regulatory decisions that are fully protective of the public health and environment.” But a coalition of 21 public health organizations sharply disagreed in a joint statement. “The rule EPA announced today goes against scientific evidence, and devalues and endangers the health of babies, children, pregnant women, and many other vulnerable populations,” the groups wrote. 

The move is the latest in a series of recent Trump administration actions—among close to 100 environmental regulations the administration has gutted or is working to dismantle—likely to result in dirtier air and water. The rollbacks are particularly troubling during the coronavirus crisis, critics say, because air pollution has been linked to an increased risk of dying from COVID-19. This connection makes the easing of air-quality rules a cause of urgent concern for people of color and low-income communities that have long been forced to shoulder the worst of pollution’s health consequences. 

“In the midst of this pandemic, when we’re learning that black and Latino communities and individuals are dying at higher rates than their white counterparts, we can’t ignore the fact that that comes from the public health crisis that has been endured by these communities for decades and has only gotten worse under the Trump administration,” says Jessica Loya, director of policy and programs for the nonprofit group GreenLatinos. “It was blatantly clear for black and Latino communities that Trump's policies would cost us our lives, and now it’s becoming more clear to the entire nation.”

Last week’s action doesn’t lower limits on mercury emissions, but instead alters the regulation’s mathematical foundation—a bureaucratic-seeming change that experts say could have profound consequences. The Obama administration had justified the regulation’s hefty cost by noting that it would improve public health not only by reducing exposure to toxic mercury, but also by capturing other pollution from smokestacks, preventing an estimated 11,000 premature deaths each year. But the Trump administration’s new rule says the government can’t consider those indirect benefits, an accounting approach that allows officials to say it’s not appropriate and necessary to regulate hazardous emissions. 

That interpretation could leave not only the mercury standards, but also other regulations that promote public health, vulnerable to legal challenges from the fossil fuel industry, says Joseph Goffman, executive director of the Environmental and Energy Law Program at Harvard University and a former EPA official. “I think this has a little bit less to do with this particular set of emissions standards and more to do with a much bigger project the agency and the administration have, which is to essentially sabotage or manipulate cost-benefit analysis so that it always comes out to show that the costs of regulation outweigh the benefits,” he says. 

The mercury announcement arrived on the heels of the EPA’s April 14 proposal to keep in place air quality standards for particulate matter such as soot, smoke, and other particles and droplets, arguing that the existing limits are strong enough and have already brought significant decreases in pollution. Industry groups welcomed the decision, including the American Petroleum Institute, the American Chemistry Council, and the National Association of Manufacturers.

However, just days before the announcement, a Harvard research team reported findings that, because particulate matter can damage human cardiovascular and respiratory systems, even a slight uptick in long-term exposure to it leads to a major increase in the death rate from COVID-19. And that study followed a draft report in September by EPA staff which concluded that existing standards may be too lax, to the point of allowing thousands of premature deaths each year, even before the coronavirus outbreak. Health groups, noting that African-Americans are exposed to more particulate pollution and face a higher risk of dying from it, said in a joint statement that EPA’s decision “violates the core purpose of these standards under the Clean Air Act: to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety.”

Two weeks before the particulate pollution announcement, the EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finalized a rule that weakens an Obama-era policy to curb emissions from the transportation sector, the nation’s biggest source of greenhouse gases. That policy required automakers to increase the fuel efficiency of their fleets by 5 percent each year through 2026, but the Trump rule ratchets down that increase to just 1.5 percent annually. The new rule, Wheeler said when it was announced, “supports our economy, and the safety of American families.” Yet the nearly 2,000-page rule says it could cost the country up to $13.1 billion while significantly raising carbon emissions and causing more premature deaths as a result of other toxic tailpipe emissions. 

And preceding all of these rollbacks was EPA’s announcement on March 26 that it would exercise discretion in enforcing some pollution limits in response to the coronavirus crisis. The agency argues that the flexibility is needed under these extraordinary circumstances, and says it still “expects regulated facilities to comply with regulatory requirements, where reasonably practicable, and to return to compliance as quickly as possible.” But former EPA officials describe the move—which the EPA calls temporary but for which it hasn't set an end date—as an unprecedented free pass to pollute. “I have to admit, I’m very aware of the shortcomings of Trump environmental policies, but when I read this I actually gasped,” says Judith Enck, who served as a regional administrator for the agency in the Obama administration. 

Environmental groups have already sued the EPA over the pause in enforcement, and are certain to challenge other rollbacks in court. But without environmental cops on the beat, Loya says communities of color face an immediate threat in the meantime. “Those toxins are being released into the air today, this minute,” she says. “They’re being absorbed into the lungs of black and Latino communities right now as they deal with this pandemic, making them even more susceptible.”